How fitting that U2 has a new album out; their sound is everywhere these days. Atmospheric and chiming instrumentation, driving bass lines, falsetto choruses—everyone from Coldplay to Snow Patrol to Keane are taking this formula and expanding its applications. It’s a winning formula, to be sure, and a million other bands could employ the same sound without wearing it out. Long before this latest round of “innovative” artists, however, the Devlins—who also happen to be from Dublin, Ireland—were taking the pop song format to ethereal and epic heights. With Waves, their fourth album, the Devlins build upon their reputation as one of rock’s most reliably solid underground groups.
For those unfamiliar with the Devlins, they’ve toiled in relative obscurity (in the States, that is) since releasing their first album in 1993. Consisting of brothers Colin and Peter Devlin, they’ve steadily built a loyal following in the UK, particularly on the Emerald Isle. According to the band’s website, Waves recently debuted in the top twenty on the Irish charts. Like many underappreciated bands such as Wilco and the Flaming Lips, the Devlins’ songs have appeared on numerous soundtracks and in various television projects, including HBO’s Six Feet Under and the movie Closer. This is not surprising; their music, as previously mentioned, is evocative of U2’s, marked by soaring guitars and airy choruses. Take a drive while listening to Waves, and you’ll find yourself cruising around the block a few extra times noting the beauty of your surroundings.
The U2 comparison is convenient at best and outright misleading at worst. Sure, the Devlins like the higher-pitched notes of the guitar, and they enjoy playing an echoed chord repeatedly until it bounces around in your ears; but their sound is nonetheless distinctive. Rather than consciously creating songs that are sonically overwhelming, the Devlins take a different approach: start out with a simple chord progression, add an intricate and catchy melody, then add the ethereal flourishes. “Lazarus,” for example, begins with only a sparse drum beat and the occasional strum but climaxes with a spacious melody and swirling guitar. On “Sunrise,” a dancing guitar melody weaves in and out of Colin Devlin’s vaporous falsetto. The songs sound carefully constructed to make every musical component essential and compelling.
Lyrically, the material is straight-forward and confessional. Unfortunately, some will listen to this album and think the words boring, bland, or banal. This, however, would be an unfair, and simplistic assessment. The Devlins aren’t trying to write “Mr. Tambourine Man” here; rather, the lyrics are uncomplicated and immediate, much like the realizations they inspire. In “Careless Love,” Colin Devlin muses, “Nobody has to live a lie / Nobody has to take the blame / All I wanted was the truth.” As this line reveals, the truth is often so apparent it’s only obscured by our own motivations. Likewise, in “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart,” the chorus provides some uncommon common sense: “Don’t let it break your heart / Don’t let it tear you apart / It’s just bruises and scars ” There’s more wisdom in these three lines than the entire self-help section at Barnes and Noble.
Adding to the album’s appeal are the production and engineering. For this album, the Devlins brought in mix engineer Danton Supple, who has worked with many acclaimed acts, including Doves, Starsailor, Coldplay, and Morrissey. The result is an album that breathes and envelops the listener, much like a work produced by Daniel Lanois. Though the songs contain numerous layers of instrumentation, they do not suffocate under their own tiers. Instead, the sounds float upon and within each other. This open, buoyant production underscores the subtle revelations of the lyrics.
Waves is a wonderfully crafted album that manages to sound both understated and sublime, which is indeed an accomplishment. Each listen reveals new textures, hidden subtleties, and quaint hooks. Somehow the Devlins have created a work that reveals its beauty in minute increments, each new discovery hinting at the next. The songs here sound like those moments that unexpectedly become transcendent: a drive on an autumn Sunday afternoon, the moment everyone is reduced to silence when a beautiful song comes on the bar jukebox, falling headlong into a book This is, quite simply, gorgeous stuff, the product of love, labor, and talent.