As the Internet puts the weight of marketing further on the shoulders of the bands themselves, as they craft pages on MySpace and Facebook to create an aesthetic or artistic identity, long before they find a record label or a consistent live audience, the distance between the music and that image is starting to widen. Bands find “personality” in kitschy or ironic pages, aping retro movie lines or identifying mocking influences like neo-polka or electro-death-metal to come across as just strange enough to be marketable. It’s a matter of a relatively young and readily available means of marketing dictating — and hindering the creativity of — content.
In some ways, the most widely known image of Devo falls victim to similar circumstances. Many of us hear Devo and think immediately of the goofy video for “Whip It”. Even if you love it, genuinely or with irony, you recognize it as a part of the awkward infancy of the music video both as art form and marketing tool. So Devo, to those outside of the devout fanbase anyway, come off as goofy one-hit wonders.
And, well, “Whip It” gets one part of that right. Devo are goofy, nerdy, awkward — all those things. But framed in that young video media, it seems forced, even contrived. But on Duty Now for the Future, Devo fly their freak flag in the most honest way possible. They were nerdy first, and then they made music. It wasn’t about creating an aesthetic; it was about being true to their crooked selves.
So no wonder the album is rife with sci-fi paranoia and doomed futures. Right from the opening track, “Devo Corporate Anthem” — a nod to Rollerball, speaking of goofy — it establishes a tone. The lofty yet synthesized horns of that brief intro set up an album with high walls around Mark Mothersbough and his fellow cogs, as they fight within a dehumanizing machine to take it all down. It may sound antiquated now — hell, it might even have been close to that back in 1979 — but the band’s execution is flawless. Flawless because not only do they take it all on without the slightest bit of irony, but also because they show they are a tight as hell band.
Devo’s greatest strength was their inability to sit still. “Clockout” follows “Devo Corporate Anthem” with a tense shred that shifts back and forth between swelling surf-rock and angular post-punk, while Mothersbough stretched out his voice in a howl one minute, before tumbling words out rapid fire the next. He also states an oddly prescient worry here when he sings, “I got a feeling the future is going to be maintenance free.” That worry of takeover, and of dehumanization, carries through the entire record. “Wiggly World” stops and starts on hard edges, even as it speaks of a world that won’t sit still. The unassuming, palm-muted guitar of “Blockhead” is outfitted with awkward twists of guitar and spinning keyboard notes. And by the time we get to “S.I.B. (Swell Itching Brain)”, the powers that be have slipped inside of the band, threatening to crush them from within.
It all seems very melodramatic, but Devo approach it all with a childlike zeal. You can feel them discovering something new in each track, expanding this impressionistic vision of an oppressive future world. The synthesizers that intrude upon many of these songs — and they do intrude, way up in the mix — work precisely because they don’t mesh with the track. If Duty Now for the Future is about claustrophobic rule, about the crushing of the individual, then even we — the listeners — should feel those tight spaces. And when the synths tumble into, say, the breakneck rock of “Strange Pursuit”, it’ll tense your shoulders even as you’re grinning along with the track.
Like the “Whip It” video, Duty Now for the Future is unapologetically weird. But the band seems so much more at home in their weirdness here, so much so that they can play it stripped-down and straight, and still catch us off guard. Standout “My Baby Gave Me a Surprize” and their cover of “Secret Agent Man” are straight-up pop songs. The synthesizers tone done, and the guitars and rhythm section take the lead, and prove tight as they drive these songs forward down their tilted paths.
This new edition — reissued to coincide with Record Store Day — also provides some extra tracks that cement Devo as one of the tighest, most inventive bands of their time. A live take of “Secret Agent Man” shows them able to recreate all this tight energy on stage without missing a step, while “Be Stiff (Stiff Version)” is just a bad-ass rock song, with funky guitars and killer riffs.
Devo sound for all the world on this, their best album, as if they don’t care if you’re listening, which is exactly what separates them from the crop of young bands crafting their online identities, hoping to turn clever profiles into serious attention. All that weirdness being built now is so thought-out, so carefully wrapped in a knowing cool. The internet has made weird marketable, and awfully safe, particularly when so much of what’s marketed as strange just borrows from the past. Hell, you can probably pick up one of those tiered “Whip It” hats at Urban Outfitters.
But Devo and their ilk were serious and heartfelt about their goofy sound. They were weird, but weird on their terms. Duty Now for the Future is the perfect example of that. It earns its strangeness with sharp, compelling, and infectiously energetic songs. It crafts a world to travel and never misses a step. And, perhaps most impressively, it sounds just as fresh over 30 years after its original release. So sorry upstart Brooklyn bands plotting photo shoots for your days-old Facebook pages — you’ll never be as genuinely weird, or as goddamned good, as Devo.