Art works

Devo Survive with Dignity Intact (and a Great Album, too)

Devo surprise fans with outstanding new album.

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Devo had a lasting impact on my sense of aesthetics when I was first exposed to their music in high school. Like Kraftwerk and Joy Division, Devo tapped into the 'cool' aesthetic, writing subversive songs about modern life and our relationship to technology in a way that was psychological and dark but still humorous and energizing. In this respect, their songs were a musical compliment to the novels of J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, as well as the books  released by RE/Search Publications out of San Francisco, the preeminent pre-Internet counterculture publisher that identified the aesthetic of cool that linked Ballard, Burroughs, the punk movement and the visual arts. Devo, like Ballard and Burroughs, used the contemporary language and icons of their time as the subject matter to satirize society and reformulate a new agenda for the human race, epitomized by William Burroughs’ signature line, “This is the space age and we are here to go”, of which Devo wrote their hit song “Here to Go”.

Devo: “Here to Go”

Unlike other bands such as The Smiths and New Order, I’ve continued listening to Devo, having fostered an ongoing appreciation for their songs about life in the world as I knew it, and, impressively, the songs have maintained their relevancy three decades after their original release. When news broke last year that the band had signed a landmark contract to record a new album with Warner Bros., I was fairly excited by the prospect, having never really lost interest in the band. Nevertheless, I had my doubts. They looked older, and I had a vague concern that they might be risking a unique and important legacy for a last self-indulgence in the glory days of their youth. My inherent pessimism, Devo-esque in nature, was based on the unlikelihood of their being able to match the quality and pioneering nature of their earlier work. So when I got around to listening to the band's latest creation on the Colbert Nation website where it had been streaming, I expected the worst. Much to my astonishment, however, and unbelievably, the music actually held up to my skeptical ears, and more, the album improved with each listen, until, surprisingly, I felt compelled to cherrypick individual tracks for repeated listens as I might have on one of their earlier albums. Counter to all my previous preconceptions, it slowly started to dawn on me that the band had sensationally created one of their best albums -- and – yes – believe it or not, there areactually some great songs on it. To call me shocked would have been an understatement.

Many people scoff at Devo, brushing them off as nothing more than a novelty act, but few are aware of the herculean task that they had accomplished when they first came on the scene in the late 1970s. Their charged up, dance songs about life and technology were the musical analog to J.G. Ballard’s science fiction stories that focused on the present, both of which seemed to have been deeply influenced by the Pop Art movement. Like Ballard an the Pop artists, Devo had managesd to create groundbreaking avant-garde art that was commercially accessible, an extremely rare mix. In a recent interview with NPR, Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh explained how they “always enjoyed the subversion of mixing fine art with commercial art” and how the Kent State massacre, at which him and bandmate Gerald Casale witnessed as art students, helped lay the groundwork for the band’s approach: "We had seen people get shot when we were in school, and we came to the opinion that rebellion and anarchy were obsolete, and the only way to change things in our culture was through subversion.” Far from selling out, commercial accessibility is an ideal for any art that is intended to be a vehicle for social change. As William Burroughs opined, “art creates new values,” and society’s establishment is never more at risk than when genuine art movements gain steam. In this respect, Devo can be viewed as a living, breathing pop art display delivering the wake up call to humanity, in style.

Devo navigated the landscape of modern consciousness and satirized it in the process, using the manipulative techniques of advertising to spread a message of subversion and dissent. Significantly, in their most recent incarnation, Devo have stuck to these very same principles, though this time, they’ve turbocharged their approach with contemporary tactics, using focus groups, hiring a CEO, and creating a reality show, among other novelties. These Trojan horse marketing campaigns are intended as strategic attempts to breakthrough to unsuspecting youths, cloaking an album of profound substance in the duplicitous gloss of the mass marketing machine. The cover to the album, as well as to the single “Fresh”, are further demonstrations of Devo’s attention to the details outside of the music itself, the images a clever mix of humour and subtle eroticism, resulting in some of the more artful album covers in recent memory.

“Sumthin’”:

As an album, Something for Everybody is a tightly produced, solid release from start to finish, both musically and lyrically, although there are at least three really great songs worth highlighting that rank alongside the best work in their entire catalogue. “Sumthin’”, after which the album is named, is the most exciting, with its upbeat rhythms, cool melodic synth stabs, and charged lyrical references to cable news media memes. Lines such as “I’m the leader of the Western world / The big decider in the neighborhood” and “I have to fix it like it’s just like new, / but the bankers tell me no can do” speak to current events in the news in ways that you simply don’t hear from other bands. The final verse is an even more direct example of the band’s concern with contemporary themes, reminiscent to Gerald Casale’s politically charged and almost completely ignored project from the peak of the Bush era, Jihad Jerry (of which we wrote about when no one else cared): “Psycho pundits keep on fanning the fire / Spin the story than they call ME a liar / Telling me how I should do my job / Dropping crumbs for the angry mob / Al-Queda and the Taliban / Fundamentally way out of hand / I keep trying to turn it all around / But the New World Order wants to take me down”.

“Later Is Now”:

The visionary “Later is Now” is probably the most unexpected accomplishment of the album, an activist anthem that has all of the energy and edge of their earlier work, but which has an unusual optimism that reveals a more mature and wiser Devo. Not only have the band equalled their earlier work in this song, but, in some respects, they’ve actually surpassed it. Twenty years later, it seems as if the band has come to terms with their own mortality in a way that isn’t present in their earlier work. “Later is now / Sooner or later / Everyone gets it right / Later is now / Sooner or later / Everything comes to light / Later is now.” This isn’t the sarcasm and irony of “It’s a Beautiful World” and, frankly, much as I love the bitterness of that song, it’s a welcome change. If there were ever a song to play at a protest this year, this would be it.

“No Place Like Home”:

Unbelievably, the band are able to follow up the epic “Later is Now” with the most sublime track on the album, “No Place Like Home”, a sobering requiem to the idea of the home, both in the sense of the planet as a whole, as well as the people with whom you share a roof. The gorgeous, haunting melody lives up to the humorous vocoded introduction, “A song of truth and beauty, for you...” and builds into a massive crescendo of melody and philosophic introspection. The poetic lyrics climax with the heartbreaking, beautifully crafted lines: “Can’t have a rainbow, without the rain; / Can’t have a painting without the pain, / Can’t have a lover, without the love leaving with them; / There’s no place like home, no place like home, to return to.” Powerful stuff.

In this release, Devo have shown themselves to be profound moralists, as they have in all of their previous albums. At the beginning of the BBC documentary “Another Green World”, Brian Eno explained how today’s music is different from the past, because there’s no sense of ideology attached to it. With their return, Devo have reintroduced political ideology back into pop music, and, in the process, given the counterculture (much as that might seem an outdated term in the age of the Internet) a much needed shot in the arm, reviving it from a decade long slumber with the fading of the rave scene at the end of the 1990s. The band’s creation of an album of comparable quality with their earlier incarnation -- something which almost never happens -- is a testament to their authenticity and conviction as true artists. They’re the real deal. Maybe focus groups under the right direction really are the way to go.