Review by: Jonathan Moss
I’ll admit bias straight away, Devo are one of my favourite bands of all time. They’re far better than The Residents. This album in particular is a good example of that, it’s such a bizarre and wonderful collection of odd styles, but with a cynical current which stops it from ever feeling superfluous or lightweight. The lyrics are similarly fantastic, witty and ironic, but with depth. Critics in the 70s and 80s didn’t get Devo, they thought they were misanthropic clowns, but there was a bruised heart driving them, a sadness for what they perceived as the end of 60s idealism. So yeah, they were cynical, but not for the sake of being dicks. Of course, they also had a tremendous sense of fun as well, to the point where they are remembered by most people as a novelty band. I’m not exactly sour about this, “Whip It” is a great song, but just like the comedian who’s remembered for one great joke amongst many, Devo deserve more.
The weird thing about the album is the almost retro 50s vibe. This doesn’t manifest so much in the sound as the aesthetic, though some of the synth noises sound like they’re influenced by cheesy 50s sci-fi. The guitar playing of Bob Mothersbaugh also has that twinge. Speaking of Bob 1, what an underrated guitarist! It’s probably because they only done two albums that were properly guitar based but during them he showed himself as someone capable of all sorts of catchy riffs, bizarre sounds and a general kind of good rock feel, but demented too. If Laurie Anderson used guitars more they’d be similar to Bob’s. The other instruments are cool as well, the synth playing is colourful and varied, the bass playing is pleasantly melodic and the drumming is very tight. The sounds are pretty varied as well, there’s upbeat pop rock songs, nerdier pieces and some goshdarned rock and roll that sounds like one of them mechanical bulls, up and down up and down up and down!
The album in general has a weird vibe, but very pleasant and tuneful as well. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale handle the singing between them and they both have sort of goofy new wavey voices. Baritones, but very enthusiastic. Fucking manic at times. Mark in general sounds zanier, with Gerald being the more cynical one. For me the album sounds kind of like if slightly offbeat critical theorists decided to record an album together, moving from their homeland to some place in decaying industrial America and chronicling the negative dialectics of life there. And I guess, what with me trying to impress upon you my critical authority, I’ll say the album should sound like that for you as well. And if not that, it should at least sound damn good, which I will now illustrate by writing about the tracks. Then, after that, if I can find anything to negatively critique, I’ll do that.
Well, it starts off excellently with “Uncontrollable Urge”, a bright punkish energetic pop rocker. It has really cool computerish synth noises as well, a catchy joyous guitar riff and very enthusiastic vocals from Mark Mothersbaugh. Jesus, the song really captures the spirit of its title well. There’s a great robotic call and response bit at the end where Mark says “and I say yeah” to which Bob and Gerry respond things like “he says yeah”. That section is tense, and then it launches into Mark yelling “And I say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!!” as if his testicles had just been tased and he took a perverse joy in it. This is fabulously followed by their herky jerky cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, a classic piece of deconstruction where the song is nerdified to make the lyrics seem much more accurate, fuck, you can hear the sexual tension in the nervous bassline, queasy guitar line and almost militaristic dancey drums. Over which Mark sings very nervously.
The next two songs are “Praying Hands” and “Space Junk”, which for whatever reason I’ve always lumped together. They’re both great songs, “Praying Hands” is lyrically a satire of religion, comparing it to a dance craze. Musically it’s really upbeat and bouncy, with a fun squiggly high pitched synth and catchy stuttery guitar. Mark’s vocal sound amusing and are quite hysteric. “Space Junk” opens with a kind of chiming guitar (or keyboard?), it sounds like it could be a sound used for an elevator button. In the chorus Gerald Casale lists off countries and American states, assuming a hick accent for the hick states. This is accompanied by a wild guitar line and a sorta angsty sound.
Then we’re on to possibly the two best songs on the album! First off is Mongoloid, which is a perfect example of how to create a tense song. It opens with a pulsating, gloomy bass line, this is followed by some eerie synth noises, the bass line gets louder and more ominous and then the choppy guitar line joins in. The song is sung in unison by Gerald and Bob 1, in a nasally nerd voice. The song continues to grow in aggression, with screeching synth sounds culminating in a solo, while Bob and Gerry chant “mongoloid he was a mongoloid happier than you and me”. Menacing song, but catchy too! Then there’s “Jocko Homo”. It starts off with a menacing fast punkish riff, leading on to a jerkier one. Over this Mark kind of sing-shouts the lyrics, to call and response from Bob and Gerry (Mark: Are we not men? Backing vox: we are devo!) This is done with various tones of voice. It’s a fun song, their mission statement. Not that the idea of de-evolution is original or intelligent, though it serves the band well for their satire. Appropriately, the song does have a sort of primordial energy to it. The bridge is probably the catchiest part, with Mark enthusiastically singing “God made man, but he used a monkey to do it!”, leading back to the call and response, this time with more tension. And monkey noises! Courtesy of Brian Eno! Who produced the album! With the help of David Bowie! Okay let’s go!
I’m not huge into “Too Much Paranoias”, it’s a cool song, lots of build up, borderline filler. “Gut Feeling” is one of their most beautiful songs though, opening with a catchy guitar line that reminds me of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (I got this from Mark Prindle, he’s totally right), with a nice driving rhythm guitar as well. Then a melancholic, strangely electronic sounding piano. This build up goes on for about a minute, when Mark starts finally singing with a nice guitar burst it’s pretty orgasmic. Mark sounds frustrated singing “I’ve got a gut feeling!” and when he sings the “got a gut feeling, centered ’round long time ago, on your ability to torment” it’s almost touching. This segues into Mark shouting “I’ve got a gut feeling” with blasts of guitar feedback, then seguing into a short one minute punker called “slap your mammy”. It’s got a lot of energy and feels kind of like a hoedown, but it’s not a great song. This is followed by “Come Back Jonee”, a fun kind of rock and rollish sounding tune, with really nice guitar playing and a vibrant sound. Then “Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Getting)”, which perfectly captures the sensation of losing an erection, with Mark almost yodelling “I think I mised the hole-ah” over what sounds like a synth disappointedly powering down. “Shrivel Up”, is one of the best songs on the album, and a great way to close! What a creepy fucking song. Gerry sings in this kind of wry, menacing voice over plodding electronic noises and a droning synth. The guitar playing has a processed, otherworldly sound. This all helps make the song sound very strange and unnerving, kind of like a song that would play over a sewer system in a rural alien planet.
Well, as I’ve wrote this review I have developed some criticisms. There’s not enough Gerry songs goddamnit! I read in a book about Devo that someone felt they lost something when they lost the McCartney (Mothersbaugh) and Lennon (Casale) dynamic and I really agree, Gerry just sounded more spiteful and cynical than Mark and the few songs he does get to sing are amongst the best. I also wish they had allowed Brian Eno more influence in the production, the songs that he added to the most sound really great.Erm, outside of that not much, the album is structured perfectly and most of the songs are top tier.
So yeah, very good album, essential if you want to be a respectable human being.