The nifty thing about Devo’s discography is that it follows this fairly straight downward trajectory, consistent with the band’s overarching message of de-evolution. In an earlier post, I singled out New Traditionalists as the turning point, the moment where the band started losing touch with the elements that made them stand out, perhaps at the behest of Warner Brothers, who were suddenly seeing dollar signs reflecting off those goofy red hats. But it wasn’t until Shout that the band made an album that just sucked, one that even the diehards had trouble defending. It is the very definition of a disaster album – it drew awful reviews, it sold poorly, all of the singles flopped, and it got Devo dropped from Warner before they could even tour. It even wound up convincing drummer extraordinaire Alan Myers to finally quit the band. To this day Gerald Casale shivers when you mention it, recently remarking that the recording sessions were “too painful to talk about”.
What the hell happened? For one, the band was entering the natural phases of burnout, recording and touring relentlessly since 1978, a pace which only intensified since the band’s breakout hit. There were rumors of alcoholism and drug use, and Mark Mothersbaugh himself stated that much of the band wasn’t really contributing much to the writing process; in fact, outside of him and Jerry, it’s difficult to discern any contributions at all from the other band members. But the real problem was the band’s new toy, the Fairlight CMI, one of the very first digital sampling synths. If you’re familiar with the Fairlight you probably know two things; they don’t sound very good, and a lot of once-great artists wrecked their career by using them. Trouble back then was it didn’t have a lot of memory and could only handle a sample rate of 32 kHz; today you can get about the same level of sound reproduction out of a toy phone. Alas, the members of the band thought that thing was the future, even boasting that guitars were soon becoming obsolete (which must’ve been a surprise to Bob Mothersbaugh, one of the guitar gods of New Wave). Of course they were right about that in some sense, but about two decades early to the party. The first three seconds of this album will remind you exactly how terrible they sounded back in ’84, with one of the most paper-thin trumpet imitations I’ve ever heard. While the role of guitars and drums were gradually diminished throughout Devo’s history, Shout nearly jettisoned them both entirely; I don’t think there’s a single real drum on the album, and most of the guitar is blatantly fake; the same metallic “bwahhh” that your Bop It! makes.
Okay, enough about the sound, how about the songs? Well, some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the songs have lost nearly all the cleverness and subversiveness that once made Devo special. The good news is that they’re still rather catchy. I mean, for all the flack this album took, it’s still got a few memorable tunes on it, and it’s only 32 minutes long. It’s certainly not a good album but it’s not exactly unlikeable. There’s actually kind of a strange 60’s bubblegum pop revival thing going on here; “dooo-waaah” backing vocals, predictable chord changes, bits of country twang, lots of “lost my baby”-type lyrics, and a full embrace of its novelty status. In fact some times this is really direct; they crib parts of “Day Tripper” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”, and close the album with “Are You Experienced?” – not exactly bubblegum pop but they try their damnedest to transform it.
The best thing I can say about it is that I can defend half of the songs, though you have to stretch to pick out five good ones. “The 4th Dimension” and “Here To Go” are the best two; the former featuring a lot of surprisingly great hooks, the latter mindlessly catchy enough to fit in among the better tracks on Oh, No! It’s Devo. “Please Please” sounds like Devo does the Monkees, the title track is brainless but fun, and the Hendrix cover is so odd that I can’t help but be a little enthralled with it. Granted, none of this is better than the theme the band did for Doctor Detroit, perhaps the last truly great Devo tune. As for the rest, they’re almost surprisingly unmemorable, for Devo – in fact the only thing I can recall about “Puppet Boy” is how stupid it is. “The Satisfied Mind” is decent, I guess. But look, unless they’re constantly pulling out hooks, it’s impossible to focus on anything but that Fairlight, which produces some of the dinkiest and ugliest noises to ever grace a Devo album. Not that these songs would be salvageable otherwise, but damn.
All this leaves Shout as little more than a footnote – they barely played any of it live, and the songs rarely turn up on compilations. You don’t even see it in the used bins all that much, since so few people even bought it in the first place. This would be particularly notable if not for the fact that Devo would go on to release two even more inconsequential albums in 1988 and 1990, to the point where a longtime fan like myself didn’t even know they existed for a good while. And yet, I still kinda like it; it’s a guilty pleasure and an album I’m prone to skipping around a lot on, but there is something charming about the idea of Devo churning out Pure Product, something so intentionally bland and inoffensive that it almost comes off as the band trying to kill their own career.