Thursday, January 14, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1441: Devo

I woke up on the right side of the bed this morning and I’m still feeling filled with happiness to the universe. Hello, universe! You’re probably not listening, but thanks for the music all the same!

Disc 1441 is…. Freedom of Choice

Artist: Devo

Year of Release: 1980

What’s up with the Cover?  Earlier that day, an elderly woman had her purse snatched at a hand model convention by a man wearing a silver suit and a red flowerpot on his head. This was just the cops making sure the police lineup was fair. “Do you recognize any of these hands ma’m?” asked the detective. “Oh, I don’t know officer,” she replied querulously, “every young man’s hands look lovely at my age.”

How I Came To Know It: I was reading a list on Paste Magazine’s site of “Top albums of 1980” and this was on it. I checked it out and had to agree. It kicks ass.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Devo albums. They are both great, but “Freedom of Choice” is the best. #1, baby!

Ratings: 5 stars

I’ve been watching a show recently about the construction of modern music. The process often involves combining a lot of disparate sounds in creative ways. While the results can sometimes be catchy, none of it holds a candle to what Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were doing 40 years ago in Devo.

Each of these 12 songs is a perfect piece of craftsmanship, exploring multiple musical notions in an overlapping interlace, chasing the perfect interplay of sounds. Devo usually finds it in three minutes or less.

The album starts with a relatively normal – and very good – guitar riff. “Girl U Want” makes you want to dance around with the frenetic energy that comes from young love and desire. The song stitches in synthesizer, bass lines and some solid vocals into something that could have just been a New Wave crowd pleaser. Devo takes it further, creating a jigsaw puzzle of odd pieces that fit together into a coherent and enjoyable tune. Never has experimentation sounded so good.

This is the theme of the whole record; a latticework of sound clips – sometimes organic, sometimes electronic – combined into beauty. Rap would later do something similar by sampling other music, or the perfect snare drum. Modern pop music does it with expensive equipment and a small army of songwriters and producers. Devo does a bit of both, creating all the sounds themselves and then turning them into high art.

There are a million great moments on this record. That bass line that holds down “Whip It” and the urgent alarm sound that they introduce later to offset it. The synth harmonies on “Snowball” The Clash-like guitar on “Gates of Steel” throwing a little hard rock in with the punk and that answering riff which is either guitar or keyboard (I can’t tell). It all just works.

Snowball” even pulled me into a philosophical journey. The song is a simple image. A woman takes love, like a snowball, and rolls it up a hill. As it rolls, it gets bigger until it is so big, she can push it no farther, and it rolls back down. It had me thinking of Camus discussing the Myth of Sisyphus. In that moment, the rock rolls down the hill, and before he begins again, Sisyphus is free. In that same moment when the snowball of love rolls away, there’s a deep sadness. Love rolling down a hill is a different animal. Or maybe they’re saying it takes two to roll that all the way up the hill. What I do know is that for such a simple image, the song invites a lot of deep thinking.

On the title track, Devo explores how freedom of choice can paralyze you. Or as they put it:

“In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead”

Gotta pick one of those bones, dog. Life’s about choices.

And while you could spend quite a bit of time exploring every song for its onion-layers of meaning, it is so much more fun to just revel in the energy and musicality Devo pull out of a series of simple, carefully chosen sounds. They always know just what they need, like outlaw artists composing sculpture from a junkpile. And the scariest thing is, you could rearrange these songs just a bit into a more traditional format, play them on guitar, and they would still sound great.

When I reviewed “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo?” back at Disc 1250 I noted that while I loved it, every now and then it got sufficiently weird to lose me emotionally. That never happened on “Freedom of Choice”. I was fully invested and along for the ride from the opening notes to the end.

As for how it achieved the vaunted 5-star rating, it wasn’t just all that philosophy and life advice. The truth is that I listened to this album four times in a row, before reviewing it. After the first listen, I would start again, each time vowing to note which songs I liked the best. But I could never choose. I like them all.

Best tracks: all tracks

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