When Devo first famously proclaimed that they were “Through being cool” in 1981, the line couldn’t be taken seriously. Devo was still near the height of their power, and part of that power was a knack for satire that caught the attention of a generation trying to form their own identity by transitioning away from the free-love zeitgeist of the seventies. Looking back, the overwhelming kitsch that went into Devo’s persona makes them harder to take seriously, but at the time the band was just as much as a part of the New Wave avant-garde as their contemporaries Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, the Talking Heads and even Berlin-era David Bowie.
That, however, was nearly thirty years ago, and it has been twenty years since Devo’s last full length album—Smooth Needle Maps—hit the market with a resounding thud. To some degree you can only keep trotting out the same formulaic tracks—not to mention prancing out on stage wearing neon yellow track jackets and upside-down flower pots—for so long before people stop taking you seriously as musicians. For their newest effort, Something for Everyone, Devo faced a fork in the road. They could stick to the same old routine and satisfy their remaining fans, or have a legitimate go at reworking the Devo sound to appeal to an audience that’s long since left the New Wave genre behind.
The first several tracks, all of which are being promoted as singles, unfortunately suggest that the group chose the former approach. The songs are valiant attempts at classic Devo robot rock—simple melodies, cheesy lyrics, and ample quantities of arcade synth bleeps—but the decades of rust are clearly evident. The opening track, “Fresh” is the best of the three, but despite the line, “Fresh, I’ll search till I find it. I’m closing in behind it,” the song could have been an also-ran track from one of Devo’s late-seventies albums. Which is more than the next two tracks, “What We Do” and “Please Baby Please” can claim. “What We Do” features one of most annoying hooks I’ve heard in awhile, along with awful lyrics, even by cheesy Devo standards. “Textin’… Electin’… it’s what we do!” Ugh.
The album, however, rescues itself from being totally unlistenable as the band steadily changes its approach for the middle tracks by easing up on the video game feel and incorporating some fuzzy guitar riffs and even a hint of piano. “Sumthin’” is one of the highlights here, featuring crisp drumming and a welcome reprisal of the “Whip It” whip noise. “Human Rocket” is an example of Devo cheesiness as its best, with the lyrics, “I am a human rocket, on a mission of deployment!” helping to drive the energy of the track.
The finest effort on the album is the foot-tapping final number, “March On”. If the band wanted a blueprint for future work, “March On” would be a good place to start. The eminently danceable hook is unquestionably the best on the album, and the song proves that Devo is capable of fusing their classic sound with contemporary pop in a way that can satisfy both new listeners and devoted fans. “March On”, if not the rest of the album, proves that Devo really can bring something for everyone.
On the whole, from a purely musical perspective, Something for Everyone is a solid, if not spectacular effort. However, Devo has always been as much about its image as its music (they were originally billed as a performance art group), and it’s in this department that Something is the most perplexing. The album is like previous Devo releases in that it strives for satire, but this time it feels as though band is no longer sure what it should be satirizing. On the one hand, there are a handful of attempted political statements, but these are either too corny, e.g. “Al-Queda and the Taliban, fundamentally out of hand,” or too unspecific, e.g. “I’ve lived in cities all around the world [. . .] One thing’s always the same. There’s way too many problems,” to carry any weight.
On the other hand, there was the bizarre, if occasionally innovative, marketing campaign, which took aim at the overly-polished and out-of -touch outfits that contemporary major label albums have become. The band signed on with Warner Bros. for the newest release, but also took the nearly unprecedented step of hiring a big league ad agency, Mother, to help with publicity. Together, the band, Warner Bros. and Mother combined to form “Devo Inc.”, a vehicle for various parodies of corporate communications, including a Tom Waits-esque fake news conference and regular email “communiqués” from the “COO.” All of this might have been funnier had the band not allowed these little charades to affect the content of the album. A faux-focus group session entitled “Song Study” determined which 12 tracks (out of 16 candidates) would make the album, as well the order in which they would be listed. Paul Malmström, an executive creative director/partner with Mother described the focus group sessions as, “Kind of the opposite of a reality show. A reality show looks real, but you know it’s scripted. This looks fake, but everything is real.”
As interesting or innovating as that approach may be, one can’t help but wonder if the focus groups should have been fake. The attempt at corporate parody seems more than a little disingenuous when a straw poll is actually allowed to determine the album’s track listing. After all, Devo is a band that once sang, “There’s a certain breed, so very in between. They’d rather take a vote, running short on time. Still they can’t decide.” As if nothing were holy, a “Color Study” determined that Devo’s trademark red “energy dome” hats would be more palatable in blue.
I suppose it’s hard to blame an aging band for trying something a little different to get attention, but I would have been more inclined to be sympathetic to the legitimate musical effort that went into Something for Everyone if the group had forgone the gimmicks and let the songs stand on their own. As it is, the album has at least a few worthwhile tracks, but is ultimately just another forgettable late-career effort.