Ever had a moment where you worried that human civilization might be utterly, irrevocably, and unquestionably fucked? Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale certainly did. Pioneers in the study of mankind’s continual “de-evolution”, the two founders and principal songwriters of Devo have spent well over 30 years poking the soft, squishy underbelly of contemporary American society with a very sharp stick. Their uncomfortably tense, robotic sound and perversely iconic imagery have proven enormously influential over the years, even as the majority of the record-buying public embraced them as a goofy novelty act – which, if you think about it, might’ve been the only way they could’ve gotten away with being so damned cynical in the first place. So Mark plays keyboards and sings, Jerry plays bass and sings slightly less, and other members of the band include Mark and Jerry’s brothers, both of whom play guitar and are named Bob. Rounding out the classic Devo lineup was Alan Myers on drums, replacing yet another Mothersbaugh brother, Jim (the drummer’s chair is currently filled by Josh Freese).
Finally, I think it’s crucial to note that these guys came from Akron, Ohio – not only does it explain their consistent use of small town, working-class Americana imagery, but it also puts their bitterness in perspective when you realize they bore witness to (and lost friends in) the Kent State massacre. With that in mind, it’s time to enter Devo’s wiggly world…
What really made Devo work in the beginning was not so much their warped sense of humor or their innate geek appeal (though that did help), but how freakin’ sinister they were. Though they often presented it in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, the Devo view of the world is actually fairly bleak and disturbing when you get right down to it. Love and sex are presented as deeply unsatisfying and endlessly awkward. Total anonymity is the only alternative to being an outcast. On “Too Much Paranoias,” a Burger King jingle is refashioned into a symbol of the coming apocalypse. It’s like a ’50s sci-fi nightmare version of working-class america, all of the familiar symbols of comfort and stability transformed into something horribly grotesque and unpleasant. And then there’s the music: punk-rock energy enslaved by the stiff, jerky rhythms of lockstep conformity, all shoulder-hunching, teeth-grinding tension without any catharsis. Thankfully, it’s also oodles of fun to listen to. Brian Eno’s production adds lots of suitably creepy touches, but this is Devo’s geek show all the way. “Jocko Homo” is the anthem, rock’s greatest (and most hilarious) statement of we’re-all-fucked fatalism, but there isn’t a weak link in the whole bunch, and I haven’t even mentioned the Rolling Stones cover. Get this yesterday.
Duty Now for the Future (1979)
Delving deeper into the darkest corners of Devology, Duty Now for the Future puts the microscope on our personal relationships, and the results are every bit as squirm-inducing as you’d expect. Oh sure, “Blockhead” isn’t that much different thematically from the previous album’s “Mongoloid” and the cover of “Secret Agent Man” is mostly played for laughs, but what do you make of “S.I.B.,” a song about man’s brain literally bursting out of his skull? How does one sit comfortably through the fascism-as-rape allegory of “Triumph of the Will”? How to reconcile the dopey-happy bounce of “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise” with lines like “I saw her sweet face trembling / as she tried to open her eyes”? Even the music is more uncomfortable, throwing in more awkward time signatures and giving the robotic sci-fi synths as much prominence as the guitars. Though many people argue that this album is the weakest of Devo’s first three albums (the “classic trilogy,” as it were) I’d say it’s actually their most fully realized artistic statement, an uncompromisingly ugly take on an increasingly dehumanized society. Wether that’s a journey you’re willing to make, though, depends on how much cynicism you’re willing to stomach in one sitting.
Freedom of Choice (1980)
A welcome break from the claustrophobic menace of Duty Now, Freedom of Choice shows Devo couching their typically snide social commentary in more “normal” new wave pop songs. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean some kind of dreaded “sellout” move so much as guitars coming back to the fore, strong vocal melodies abounding, and rhythms you can actually tap your foot to without giving yourself an aneurysm. On the lyrical tip, they’re singing about love for the first time, and not necessarily in an ironic way, either — “It’s Not Right” and “Snowball” are pretty straightforward pop lyrics, at least by Devo’s skewed standards. That said, those looking for incisive satire should look no further than the title track, which takes a chant of “freedom of choice is what you got, freedom of choice is what you want” and gradually turns it into “freedom of choice is what you got and freedom from choice is what you want” — the fact that you may barely notice the transition makes it all the more subversive. And then there’s the typical skewering of gung-ho americana imagery, done hilariously on “That’s Pep!” and made hit-worthy with the ubiquitous “Whip It.” This is a new wave party album par excellence, and the best part is you won’t feel any dumber for dancing to it.
New Traditionalists (1981)
Going a bit too far into the synth-pop mainstream for comfort, New Traditionalists marks the point where Devo began losing their way. Where the last album found them trading confrontation for subversion, New Traditionalists finds them playing themselves down to the point of invisibility. This time out we’re getting straight-faced songs about love and sex over a muddily-mixed wall of synths, with two anthems to outsider-dom (“Through Being Cool,” “Going Under”) thrown in for good measure. The album ends with two of Devo’s bluntest statements: the deceptively pretty “Beautiful World” (the album’s one true classic) and the lyrically astute but otherwise forgettable “Enough Said.” Ultimately, though, it’s not so much a lack of irony that hurts this album as a lack of new ideas, and Devo’s identity crisis would only worsen with the albums to come.
Oh No! It’s Devo (1982)
Though it’s generally considered a significant step down from its predecessor, Oh No! It’s Devo can be considered an improvement over New Traditionalists in two important respects: 1) the subversive strangeness of Devo’s best work is at least in evidence here and 2) it’s actually a lot of fun to listen to. The palpable tension and lyrical wit of their early material may be gone, but at the very least these songs have some life and energy to them, and Roy Thomas Baker’s production makes their now-mostly-synthetic sound as muscular and powerful as any rock band. Still, even the slickest production can’t quite gloss over the spiteful sarcasm of songs like “Explosions” (“There’s nothing but the stop-and-go… there’s nothing more than what you know”) or “That’s Good” (“Everybody’s just like you it’s true, everybody wants a good thing too!”). And then there’s “Peek-A-Boo!,” a ballistic missile of what-the-fuck weirdness that’s equal parts “hilarious” and “really, really creepy.” Though it pales in comparison to what they did on their first few albums, anyone looking to explore the musical minefield of late-period Devo could do way worse than this.
Yep. Way, waaaaaay worse. For all the flak I gave them, New Traditionalists and Oh No! It’s Devo are not bad albums per se, just slightly below the standard set by their first few efforts. This, on the other hand, is painfully, shockingly bad. The songs themselves are merely unremarkable — the lyrics and vocal melodies are generic pop fodder at best — but what really pushes this over the proverbial cliff are the arrangements, which essentially consisted of the band programming the songs into a toy Casio keyboard and setting it to “KILL.” If you’ve ever wondered what Devo would sound like scoring an aerobics tape in hell, here’s your answer. The rest of us, however, can safely avoid this album knowing that all we’d be missing is the halfway-decent “Jurisdiction Of Love” and a so-wrong-it-actually-sorta-works version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” And if those already sound bad to you, you’re really gonna hate this…
Total Devo (1988)
So Devo took a few years off, losing drummer Alan Myers in the process (he was replaced by ex-Sparks drummer David Kendrick). Unfortunately, on the evidence of Total Devo, the break only partially recharged their creative batteries. Total Devo isn’t so much a bad album as shrug-inducingly normal one, sort of like New Traditionalists with much glossier production and more goofy novelty songs. Though it’s hated by most rational-thinking Devo fans, the album does boast a few clear highlights: “Some Things Never Change,” “Plain Truth,” and “Happy Guy” are all direct, sincere, and grown-up, three qualities that Devo had often shied away from in favor of snide sarcasm and ironic detachment. Of course, any claims to maturity can immediately be rebuked by the inclusion of a terrible Elvis Presley cover, a song called “Sexi Luv,” and lyrics like “You – you know you’re my sweet hot chihuahua / if I can’t have you, I’m gonna get blowed up.” So much for maturity and so much for a comeback, but hey, at least it’s better than Shout.
Smooth Noodle Maps (1990)
Man, I really hate having to review late-period Devo. I’ll keep it brief: this album is a woefully out-of-touch attempt to incorporate “dance” elements into Devo’s sound, effectively making them sound more obsolete than ever, and putting this just one notch above Shout because it’s merely lousy as opposed to completely unlistenable. I suppose I’m obliged to single out “Post Post-Modern Man” as a “highlight,” but I’d say the best stuff on the previous two albums runs rings around it (yes, even the Hendrix cover). The rest of the album has maybe a few decent moments: the unexpectedly cruel (and fucking funny) chant that opens “Jimmy” and later serves as the song’s chorus, the actually-sorta-danceable groove of the otherwise unfathomably stupid “When We Do It,” the fact that there’s a song called “Devo Has Feelings Too.” For the most part, though, this album is instantly forgettable, and that’s maybe the saddest indictment of a Devo album I can think of.
Something For Everybody (2010)
As it turns out, taking 20 years off may have been the wisest career move Devo ever made. Actually, that’s not entirely true — they’ve still been plenty active, touring fairly consistently and even recording sporadically (mostly for soundtracks). Still, a lot can change when you take 20 years between albums, and for the most part these changes have been in Devo’s favor: dancey, synth-driven new-wave-rock has seen a resurgence, and it seems like just about every band with a grain of relevance has cited Devo as an influence at some point. One could also argue that signs of our cultural de-evolution are more prevalent than ever – in other words, all Devo really had to do for a comeback was record something that didn’t suck. Sounds simple enough, right? Well sure, until you remember that the last time these guys took time off, the best they could come up with was Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps. But fear not: this is easily Devo’s strongest effort since Oh No! It’s Devo, maybe even Freedom of Choice. Of course, it could very well be the novelty of having Devo back and sounding relevant again — thanks to Greg Kurstin’s beefy-sounding production, their squiggly synths and stiffly mechanical rhythms have never sounded more timely, and having some crunchy rock guitar back in the mix certainly doesn’t hurt.
That said, what really marks Something for Everybody as a true comeback are the rock-solid hooks, the infectious energy, and the fact that a couple of these songs can proudly hold their own against Devo’s best. “Though Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” and “Fresh” are easily the catchiest things they’ve done in ages, it’s the closing trio of “serious” songs that merit the most attention: “Later Is Now,” “No Place Like Home” (their first-ever piano ballad!), and “March On” are all impassioned statements of purpose that show that Devo still haven’t lost their fighting spirit. In short, it’s great to have them back.