Monday, January 25, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #146 - Devo - Duty Now For the Future

You probably know something about the art project/guerrilla theater/rock band from Akron, OH known as Devo, The De-Evolutionary Band. After years of underground touring to go with handmade films and other forms of art-propaganda they finally released their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO! in 1978. It was produced by Brian Eno (along with David Bowie an early supporter of the band) and is considered a post-punk classic. Two years later, their third album, Freedom of Choice, became a new wave smash, propelled by the hit single "Whip It." It is both perverse and inevitable that a band like Devo would score a big mainstream hit. Yet it also fits in with the band's philosophy and methodology, critiquing the excessive consumerism of modern Western society. Was this part of the plan all along? For Devo to first break through to the mainstream and then years later be considered yet another disposable one-hit wonder seems like it could have been the master plot of Devo masterminds Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale.

But we're not here to talk about all that today. For between the landmark debut and the massive breakthrough came the difficult second album, Duty Now For the Future. The twist, and there always is one with Devo, is that this often overlooked album is nearly as good as the first one, with lots of hidden gems and lost classics. Opening with the synthesized fanfare of the "Devo Corporate Anthem," the album picks up in earnest with the energetic "Clockout." This critique of corporate office work reminds us that the best part of the workday is often the end of it. Another short instrumental, "Timing X," displays the band's musical chops, particularly those of drummer Alan Myers. Devo's talent as musicians is rarely acknowledged, even by hardcore Devo-tees, yet they could always work their way around the tricky arrangements they created for themselves. "Wiggly World" is a great high energy rocker with some musical twists of its own. Lyrically, it provides advice for navigating a strange world where "It's never straight up and down." "Blockhead" is clearly a cousin of the first album's "Mongoloid" but is also a great song in its own right. After charging through at full speed for most of the album so far, Devo slows things down a bit for the moody and creepy "S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain)."

The inward turn continues with the start of the album's second half. "Triumph of the Will" uncomfortably combines fascist imagery with relationship trauma. Things pick up again with the cheery sounds of "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize." "Pink Pussycat" is a nice bouncy pop tune which leaves the listener to wonder if Devo are indulging in cheap juvenile jokes or mocking them. Probably a little bit of both. Perhaps the album's best known song is "Secret Agent Man." This cover/parody of the hit 60s TV theme song had been in the band's repertoire since their earliest days. The additional lyrics play up the absurdity of undercover spy as pop culture hero. Even Devo know how to rock out and they do on the album highlight "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA." The lyrics further deepen the band's philosophy and mythology that they had previously established on their debut album and underground films like The Truth About De-Evolution. Musically, the band charge through traditional rock song structure even including a couple instrumental breaks that show off the guitar work of Bob Mothersbaugh while Myers again brings strong drumming. The album concludes with the high energy synth-driven "Red Eye." The current CD edition includes a generous helping of bonus tracks. A pair of singles included here, "Soo Bawlz" and "Be Stiff," are just as good as anything on the album.

As the years roll on, Devo's achievements continue to gain recognition and their influence continues to grow. In the past year, right here in Denver, the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted an exhibition of Mark Mothersbaugh's visual works. He's also been one of the top film composers of the past few decades, particularly known for his work with Wes Anderson. The art and message of Devo have always taken on multiple formats. Yet their great run of studio albums has always been their core and the best way for newcomers to enter their wiggly world. When diving into this world, be sure not to overlook Duty Now For the Future.  It's one of the best.

-          Adam Reshotko

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