When Nervus say that they’ve “abandoned all preconceptions of what success might look like as a band” on The Evil One, you can totally buy that. If that sounds backhanded, it’s sincerely not; the rousing, rollicking alt-punk that’s served as Nervus’ most outward feature has always felt like a secondary consequence anyway of how politically populist and mobilised they are. Their reputation does proceed them in that regard, in how unwavering and assertive frontwoman Em Foster is in her political standings (both on and off record), and how the combination of that with the DIY-or-die approach has taken them this far with a complete avoidance of greater industry backing. The fact that the music has always been great just ties it all together nicely, no-frills and vital but exceedingly melodic, without clouding how bone-deep their vision runs.
And yet, to go back to that original pull quote designed to so firmly encapsulate The Evil One, it’s easy to see where Nervus are coming from, but also how difficult it can be to break from an established norm that always lands so well. It’s definitely the biggest grower among Nervus’ albums, this time pulling from sources of older Americana and power-pop that seems to keep a deliberate distance from anything all that punk. On the other hand though, deconstruction can only be put in place so much when the command of melody is so potent, to where The Evil One’s excellence doesn’t come immediately but it’s no less satisfying when it does. It helps that the indie-rock in Nervus’ DNA has fair crossover here already, but the flavours are still distinct. There’s a jangle careening across Rental Song and Jellyfish that preludes the moves into purer folk on I Wish I Was Dead (Bill Hicks) and even alt-country on Absolute Yuck. On the whole, the album just has a lighter touch that Nervus can pull off supremely well, even when they do lean more towards grunge on Drop Out with very little impact lost. That said, it’s not hard to see where some of the disconnect can be felt in there; to little surprise, the padded drum tone on opener Iconoclast is most distracting on a first spin (even if Jack Kenny’s performance really is excellent), but it nicely clicks into place when the overall mood settles in. That doesn’t take too long, maybe longer than would be preferable for some, given how the depth of some vocals in the mix won’t entirely sorts itself out, but never to where it’s an actively dissuading listen.
Indeed, it’s a testament to Nervus’ strength as a band that they can remain so consistently inviting, and even more so that it comes without sacrificing the weight of their writing. Even on The Evil One which carries its deconstruction down to that level, the threads of detail are so well-placed and so tightly formulated. It’s something of a departure from the hardline political commentary of their previous albums, instead opting for a clearer focus on community, and breaking away from the systemic shackles that modern life has forcefully placed on everyone. Of course, that comes with the wit that’s customary on a Nervus album, in songs like Drop Out and especially Rental Song, but more noteworthy are images of nature and feelings of freedom, buoyed by excellent vocal harmonies where the individual participants’ tones only add to the communal feel. It’s about operating on a grader scale of one’s life, placing importance on connection that’s been amplified by the onus put on it in the pandemic era, and sloughing off the capitalist yoke for a more enlightened existence outside of railroading social and political constructs. Perhaps to say it’s at peace with everything is overstepping a tad—Nervus are pragmatic enough to know that they still operate within those systems, through no desire of their own—but it makes for the most composed and actualised moments in the band’s catalogue. Even in its most base form, there’s something deeply satisfying about how returning to natural state on Rotting Mass and Jellyfish is visualised; Foster’s voice is very plain-spoken and that feeds in deeply to what Nervus get so very right about this sort of honest lyricism.
And when all of that comes together, it paints that initial quote in a bit of different light, even more so than earlier. Sure, Nervus are redrawing their musical boundaries to where they mightn’t be as hard-nosed or driving as before, but to hinge a notion of ‘success’ squarely on that when it winds up as a succinct, enriched musical evolution shouldn’t be the case. When The Evil One comes into its own, it hits the same marvellous spot that Nervus always do, brimming with character and personality that’s full and beautiful, and comes together just like the classics they’re drawing from. They’re a band who’ve never had an album that’s less than excellent before, and this is another to add to list, where the different reasons for that make it all the more worthwhile. It’s really something wonderful, growing in power and resonance with each spin for the slow burn to take hold.
For fans of: The Winter Passing, Joyce Manor, Muncie Girls
‘The Evil One’ by Nervus is released on 24th June on Get Better Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall