September 12, 1988 12:00 PM


Moribund bands that attempt comebacks sometimes end up sorry creatures, as the once innovative techno-popsters Devo herewith demonstrate. It has been four years since this formerly campy, witty clan from Akron, Ohio, has made an album. Total Devo, billed as “11 digital cartoons from the de-evolution band,” will make listeners wish that Devo had stayed in its pop-cultural purgatory. This is a band peddling the lackluster pop shlock it used to send up. In Devo’s salad days, the band dressed like neo—Mr. Potato Heads and shoved the satirical needle into countless subjects with songs like Whip It (a paean to cult author Thomas Pynchon) and nonsensical fun like Girl U Want. Back then, Devo was a trenchant, accessible combination of the Residents’ deadpan ramblings, Kraftwerk’s futuristic impulses and early Tubes kitsch. Devo even went Top 10 with Working in a Coal Mine in 1981. On Total Devo, however, they resemble the Pet Shop Boys trying to be experimental. For example, it’s difficult to stomach a song with a cutesy title like Disco Dancerwhen it contains the lyrics, “In a world that’s turned unkind/ I see what’s going on behind my back.” Are we talking about shenanigans at a chic club or children starving, guys? More pretensions abound in Agitated, in which Devo whines, “I grew up in a typical way/ So I keep trying to unwind/ Cause I’m agitated/ In this place so full of hate.” What makes all this lyrical gloom seem inappropriate is the fact that Devo smothers it with light, fluffy synthesizer arias. One of Devo’s founding members, Mark Mothersbaugh, has composed songs—bright, funny ones too—for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Maybe if he had saved a couple of them to perform with his old pals, Total Devo wouldn’t sound like such a hollow zombie of an album. (Enigma)

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