Album Review: Devo – Something For Everybody

Twenty years ago the world was belligerently changing. Western social norms had again swerved into a traffic jam of at the intersection of stagnation and progress. A lot of good people got caught up in the twisted metal. Grunge music and gangsta rap were the new flags of rebellion. The synthesizer, once the weapon of New Wave warriors, had been stripped of its glory, prepackaged for mainstream consumption one too many times by the Spuds on the hill. Change was needed, but there was a cost. Synths slipped into a transcendental coma as a New Age of hypnosis began. Not even the visionaries of Devo Inc. could stop it. We should’ve listened to them.

Over the last two decades, Devo has been dormant but never dissipated – keeping the flame alive with tracks in films, television, commercials, and the occasional compilation appearance. The punk-infused psycho-sexual rock sound of their Duty Now for the Future heyday has only surfaced on rare occasions and the synthrock sound they’d achieved with Smooth Noodle Maps is still under-appreciated. Even the most hardcore DEVOtees are often torn over this schism in sound, but those times are changing. With Something For Everybody, two eras of Devo intersect for the 21st century. The album is an ideal amalgam of classic and later Devo, hybridized with all the complexities of modern sound. It’s easy to say that we’ve been waiting on Devo all this time, but it just may be that they were waiting on us. Devo’s patience has finally paid off. The world is again ready to receive their message, or, in Devo’s words, “later is now. Sooner or later everybody gets it, right?”

Devo Inc. has returned in full force. The song study was a massive success and the mainstream release has compiled the data for an informed listening experience – “88% focus group approved”! The resulting collection of tracks is a perfect music product: it’s fun, danceable, has a decided pop flavor, but is singularly Devo. A concept album of Post-modern art rock covered in a glossy iPhone finish. The snappy verses are filled with self-aware corporate jargon, reflective, revealing, and ironic in the reality of our near-future dystopia. It’s like a Warhol screenprint over the Nguyen Ngoc Loan execution photo from ‘Nam.

The opening track, “Fresh” spearheads Devo’s self-aware 21st century corporate persona, selling the song, the album, the band with what’s effectively a pop song product pitch: a “sweet and tangy” entity bewitching all who experience it to seek it out and derive ultimate happiness from acquiring it. Classic Devo subversion. What’s most important about this opening track and first single is that it immediately communicates the right message – not just the revamped Devo agenda, but that they’re back, the suits are new, but Devo hasn’t changed. The production might be modern and clean, but the Bobs’ guitar work is the same punchy, radical, and roaring guitar that licked all over “Girl U Want” and the energy and wit of the melodies and lyrics are still raw enough for thrashing about. It sets the pace for not just a phenomenal return of one of the greatest art rock outfits of all time, but one of their finest works.

“What We Do” is an anthem for the unchanging mediocrity of the first world and the illusions we subscribe to: “Gamin’/Prayin’ /Believin’/Maintainin’/Textin’/Electin’/Rejectin’/Infectin’” and the ultimate futility of this compartmentalized existence: “Feedin’ and breedin’ and pumpin’ gas/Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again”. Ultimately nothing has changed since Devo first came to us with their devolutionary message, it’s just more obvious now: “What we do is what we do. Just different names, it’s nothing new.” To any average spud listening idly, the grim cynicism of the lyrics would go completely unnoticed. They’d just happily stomp along to the marching beat. There’s a morbid beauty in that.

“Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” is one of the album’s most superior tracks. A truly modern Devo song, taking tongue-in-cheek advantage of the future they’ve suddenly materialized in. It’s a ballad of the modern man, a cog in the wheel, clinging to the concept of individuality by driving fast in a hybrid car, paranoid of being caught by the all-seeing eye. The track uses present-day dance hall synth to carry the beat, and exploits its simple and regressive sound. It creates a hectic and panicked pace matching the emasculated delusions of the protagonist who clings to the illusion that it once meant something to be a man. Borrowing from the devolutionary culture of internet videos, the song includes the phrase “don’t taze me bro” as a repeated chant adjacent to the chorus. It’s a master stroke of pop art brilliance.

A frequent theme in Devo’s music is the abusive and bizarre social politics of love and the battle of the sexes. Back in the day, the video for “Whip it” stirred up misogynist controversy from a public that didn’t understand their agenda. Devo’s perspective on the male and female disconnect explores exclusively the disharmony – the overly masculine and incessantly feminine persona leftover (to this day) from the 1950s. Case in point: “Mind Games” chronicles an abusive relationship between a manipulating woman and man who’s tormented by her but can’t see past his base desires. “Love is mind games” the song says quite bluntly to a harsh rhythm complimented by the scratchy bleeps and bloops of chiptunes. This theme is explored elsewhere on the album in “Please Baby Please”, a reduction of the classic pop song formula from rock ‘n’ roll’s early days into a desperate, junkie-like pleading for affection. Despite these negative views, in the last verse of “Mind Games” Mark Mothersbaugh explains: “I try hard to believe a guy and girl can live in peace. I get laughs when I explain we could escape the House of Pain”, referencing the genetic laboratory of H.G. Well’s Dr. Moreau.

Devo’s social criticism isn’t just about romance or the state of common man, but the government as well. In the absence of Devo, writer, bassist and vocalist Gerald Casale went on his own devolutionary crusade during the Bush administration along with fellow Devo members Bob 1 and Josh Freese as Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers. Though some of players have changed, Devo’s return finds the political climate in the Western World is still highly acidic. Tracks like “Human Rocket”, “March On”, and the almost titular track “Sumthin’” are fueled by the poison of the military industrial complex and the dichotomy between man and war machine, terrorist and bystander. Devo reminds the First World that the disconnect between the war at home and the war abroad is only a matter of perspective. The tracks aren’t’ preachy, they simply shoot from this hip. This has been the world in the past, this is the world now. These are true blue punk rock tracks in a Neo New Wave style. Of these tracks, “Human Rocket” stands out the most. A mechanical, auto-tuned, rock song made for a silver jump suited mosh pit:

There is no turning back, there are no second thoughts. First things first and all things fair, be it love or war, they say. There is no plan named ‘B’, on the land in the air or on the sea. This is what’s supposed to be. My duty now awaits me!”

Throughout Devo’s career they’ve created myriad slogans and catch phrases to rally the troops in the war of the human mind, or lack of it, on this planet. “Later is Now” is Devo’s new call to action, embodying the motive behind their return and every track on Something For Everybody. The song’s title and anthemic chorus speaks of their prophecy fulfilled and a new call to action to rebel against mental drudgery. The instruction to “go forward, move ahead, and give the past a slip” is now three words long: “In the day-glo sky, above the devolved city I looked up and saw the banner big and bold: ‘Later is Now.’” “Later is Now” is followed by, “No Place Like Home” which proclaims itself to be “a song of truth and beauty for you”. The track is different in style from the album’s other tracks, beginning with a simple, somber piano tune that segues into maracas and marimbas. It’s a sad and soberingly beautiful song expressing the emotional fallout of Later actually being Now. It’s a successor to “Beautiful World” but without the cynicism, just stark humanizing honesty:

Maybe it really is okay. Although we’re digging our own graves, at this moment.
If we should all just disappear, the skies and waters will clear in a world without us.

And there’s no place like home.. to return to.”

It’s only appropriate that now, as the new century kicks off, with world controlled by corporations, reality tv dominating the airwaves, with drones slapping down big money every time a new phone comes out, and oil poisoning the oceans without recourse, that Devo has returned to us, holding up a mirror showing us that we’re all devolved. It is the anti-future and we have to fight it. These are the anthems of our time in glowing blue capsule form. The regular album is twelve solid tracks as selected by listener survey, but there’s also the Deluxe Edition featuring four additional tracks, all equally superb. Something For Everybody is not just for old school Devo fans. Its title speaks its agenda and its function. This isn’t an old band’s noteworthy but ultimately underwhelming re-emergence as we’ve seen so often in the last decade. This is the continuation in a legacy of musical pop artistry – fresh and brilliant.


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