[7 July 2010]
“Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)”, from Devo’s long-delayed Something for Everybody, closes with a refrain of, “Don’t tase me, bro!” This is really all you need to know about the venerable New Waver’s new album. “Don’t tase me, bro”, of course, refers to the incident at the University of Florida in 2007, when an uncooperative heckler was detained by security at a John Kerry speech and zapped. YouTube turned the event into a digital wildfire, and by 2008, “tase/taze” had become the New Oxford English Dictionary’s most searched word. Now, a little over two years later, a century in Internet years, “Don’t tase me, bro” might as well be “Got Milk?”, so hearing it on Something for Everybody sounds like nerdy Dad trying to be cool Dad.
Maybe it’s inevitable that Devo’s first album in 20 years would seem a little out of touch. Even in the ‘90s, they sounded like the ‘80s, probably because in the ‘80s they were trying to sound like the future. To someone like me, for whom that decade only ever existed as ancient history, the sci-fi synths and herky-jerky angularity of Devo typified a distorted image of the ‘80s as meretricious, detached, and charmingly awkward. Pop-Up Video snidely filled the gaps in my generation’s sense of recent history, so it followed that even the sleaziest LA glam-metal struck me as endearingly naïve. Devo, who aped Kraftwerk’s fashion sense but ditched the caginess, simply were more upfront about it. A savvy and sophisticated Devo would abolish that innocence.
So they’ve foregone sonic progress and come back with the geeky post-punk that their fans know and love. There’s nothing on Something for Everybody that doesn’t sound like Devo, that’s for sure. But since Mark Mothersbaugh and company have been gone on holiday, their rigid disco entered into indie rock vernacular, and now everybody sounds a little like Devo. There are certainly more bands now reaching into the New Wave grab-bag than there were in 1990, at any rate, which was when Devo’s last full-length came out. The big difference is that while bands ranging from Out Hud and Ladytron to Modest Mouse and the Faint were re-appropriating retro sonics into a thoroughly-modern context, Devo simply give themselves an upgrade—and a minor one, at that.
Their stubbornness is kind of admirable, and there’s a small thrill to hearing all those old familiar noises—especially the whip-snap from “Whip It”, which is in at least half the songs here—but avoiding all the bullshit and making just another Devo record requires the songs to speak for themselves, which they don’t. Something for Everybody is front-loaded, so you may be fooled momentarily into thinking this album is on par with classic early ‘80s Devo. When the solid, predictably jaunty hooks of standouts like “Fresh” subside, though, the hyperactive tempos and hi-NRG bombast lose their luster and grow rather tiring. By sticking to the meticulously-cheap Casio textures of their synth-pop hey-day on such a Hollywood-slick album, Devo ends up walking the thin line between sounding like the Devo ‘80s and the “Walking on Sunshine” or “Addicted to Love” ‘80s, and when the songs start to suck on the second half of Something for Everybody, they stumble right into the less noble of those territories.
It’s at that moment that the record becomes slightly embarrassing, like Iggy Pop doing insurance commercials or King Crimson recording a song called “Dinosaur”. Supposedly, Something for Everybody is the result of listeners picking their favorites from a collection of session recordings, which makes sense: the twelve tracks of Something for Everybody are tonally monotonous (except for “No Place Like Home”, the requisite piano ballad near the end), and seem focused on placating long-time fans looking for a nostalgia trip. They sound robotic, even heavy as a result, lacking the lightness and inspiration that characterized good, classic Devo.
I’m sure this all sounds like cranky naysaying on my part, so let me close with an example of sorts. The third track, “Please Baby Please”, doesn’t start off at all different from anything else here: programmed beats, spastic keyboards, syncopated high/low vocals. When the chorus comes along, though, our favorite energy-domed dork-rockers combine their powers for a three-part doo-wop harmony that is so spot-on, you kind of wish it would last forever. It’s the kind of guileless pastiche that seems to have lived and died with New Wave, so its inclusion on Something for Everybody is a humbling reminder that my generation needs to respect its elders. Otherwise, they’re going to have to do better than, “Don’t tase me, bro!”