“We’re through being cool”. What an odd way for Devo to begin their fourth album. Devo were always about as far away from cool as you could get. Over the last four years, they’d been through their jumpsuit phase, their squareglasses phase, their reverse flowerpot phase, and now the rubber hair phase. After this, they’d travel around in potato sacks and put clowns in their videos. These guys were not exactly trendsetters.
In my R.I.P. note to Bob2, I noted that New Traditionalists was their last album that I thought was really good. Sort of ironic (but not really) that Devo themselves would wind up devolving. Their debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo? is one of my favorite albums ever; it’s been in my personal top ten for a decade now. The following two albums were also great, particularly Freedom of Choice, which is just a big ol’ pile of hooky synth riffs set against tricky rhythms and boinky guitar figures. On New Traditionalists, all the elements that would sink the band start to come into place – sequenced bass riffs, an overreliance on synthesizers, and drum machines (not a bad thing in themselves, but Alan Myers was a New Wave drum god and probably the band’s most talented instrumentalist). This was unusual given the album’s release year of 1981 – this sort of garbage wouldn’t ruin pop music until like 1986. It would certainly ruin Devo – I can get behind the awfully funny Oh, No! It’s Devo, but not the funnily awful Shout! (“Great sentence!”, I can hear you thinking. All in a day’s work here at Critter Jams).
New Traditionalists, on the other hand, winds up mostly intact. It’s still got the excellent hooks, the vocal harmonies, and the sarcastic lyricism that marks the band’s best work. You get the sense that they still had some vision here; after this it was a little unclear whether or not they even wanted to be a band anymore. I’ve always thought that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” was better than anything the group did from here on out, if that gives you a sense of things. But here you still get to hear what the band really does best – depressing sentiment spread amongst jumpy, perfectly catchy melodies. Devo were one year away from a major hit and constant MTV exposure (a byproduct of the fact that they were the only act that actually made videos regularly back then), but they weren’t quite satisfied. Despite their rather abrupt rise to fame they didn’t really make any money; instead all it brought them was a constant tour schedule and less creative control, as Warner Brothers was constantly breathing down their necks for a follow up hit. The songs here reflect a growing discontent – songs like “Through Being Cool” and “Beautiful World” are all sarcasm, while other songs reflect the possibility of nuclear war (“Race of Doom”) or the hopelessness of relationships (“Love Without Anger). “Going Under” has that “I know a place where dreams get crushed” line, and their cover of “Working in a Coalmine” (not actually on the album, but rather on a bonus 7 inch) implies that they saw themselves as little more than worker bees at that point. That’s pretty fuckin’ Devo.
Of course, Devo never did let their lyrical themes get in the way of the music – despite an overall softening of their sound, giving way to disco rhythms (“Pity You”) and vocoders (“Soft Things”), the songs are still good, even outside the hits – that run in the middle with “Going Under”, “Race of Doom”, and “Love Without Anger” was always one of my favorite stretches of Devo music. The good news is that the recent reissue cleans up the sound greatly and gives it a little bit of punch, which the original album lacked. It does have some bonus tracks, though what it’s missing is rather suspect – “Working in a Coalmine” is not included, even though it was a bonus on the original, 1981 issue, and it’s missing “Mecha-Mania Boy” which is perhaps their greatest B-side. Both were bonus tracks on the 1997 Infinite Zero release, so I can’t fathom why they’d skip ’em here. At least you get “Modern Life”, which may be an unfinished track, but good luck getting it out of your head regardless. With some track substitutions, this could’ve been on par with those first three albums, which, by the way, are really freakin’ great. But everyone knows that.