“I can’t say I’m underrated,” Kevin Devine sings at the beginning of a new Bright Eyes-like folk song called “No One Says You Have To.” Although in the context of the song, it serves as a reminder to Devine to appreciate the success he’s found, I’ll have to disagree with him there. The 39-year-old Brookyln singer/songwriter is now nine albums deep and still hasn’t put out a bad album. He was able to release two albums in the same year – on the same day – with nearly two completely different sounds and both were rightfully acclaimed. But for all that, he crowdfunded his last two albums and he was dropped from Capitol after only one release — he can say he’s not underrated all he wants, but I’m going to disagree every time.
Instigator is my argument as to why.
It used to be that when someone would ask the best entry into Kevin Devine’s catalog, I’d point to 2005’s Split the Country, Split the Street; I felt it was the best showcase of his versatile style. From now on, I’ll be defaulting to Instigator. It feels almost like a career retrospective with the way certain songs capture the moods of previous albums, but yet still have a vibe that makes each song feel distinct. The song that opens the album is a pretty mid-tempo indie rock song, but it carries the same fiery punk rock energy as most of Bubblegum. Other songs call back to the atmospheric Between the Concrete & Clouds, like “Guard Your Gates,” which feels like an REM song run through a Kevin Devine filter, or the closing “I Was Alive Back Then,” a folk ballad that sounds like a holdover from the Put Your Ghost to Rest sessions. It’s also the most intimate song Devine’s ever written, and any fans of his older work know that says a lot — he’s never been one to shy away from intense honesty in his writing. The song describes a series of powerful memories, from a Christmas with his brother to his wedding day, from the days he was “scared of being happy” to the first time he held his daughter. For a lot of Devine’s career, his lyrics have focused on personal shortcomings or political issues ,this song is different in that it doesn’t end with just a hope to get better, but with Devine happy and feeling alive. “I was alive back then,” he sings in every chorus, adding as the song winds down, “Now I am again.” It’s a deserved moment of levity at the end of a heavy album, and one that really rounds out the emotional impact of the album.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the somber “Freddie Gray Blues.” Initially released via a Facebook post following the extrajudicial killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD. While many of Kevin Devine’s songs end up as hyper-personal or hyper-political, “Freddie Gray Blues” walks the line between the two, mourning Gray’s death and recognizing his own privilege in not “know[ing] what it’s like to be afraid all my life.” He even devotes a verse to pointing out the wide number of police officers in his family, but he doesn’t make excuses for any cop’s behavior, noting that the problem is “bigger than the people I love. The system is broken, not breaking, it’s done.” A song like this could very easily come off as tone-deaf, but Devine never presumes to speak for anyone else or shirk his place in the world. Instead, in true Kevin Devine fashion, the song exudes empathy. Another example of his blending of lyrical styles is in “No History,” which lets us witness the Twin Towers falling on September 11th through Devine’s eyes. The first verse walks us through his day, from his roommate waking him up, to calling his father as the chorus describes the scene: “The mosque on my corner, the firetrucks everywhere, the anger, the mourners – no history, it’s dead in the air.” He pans out in the song’s final verse, describing how, even after all the “blood and money,” all the wars, all the death, all the fear, and all the hate, “we’re still in the future.” The final chorus, repeating the same lines, doesn’t just capture the Towers in 2001, now it’s 2016 and the mosque has been firebombed by anti-Muslim terrorists, surrounded by firetrucks, and the anger is directed at the mourners this time, just hoping their families are safe. It’s not foreign enemies tearing us apart this time, it’s us.
This sobering realization – that maybe we aren’t always the heroes – also fuels the rollicking “Both Ways.” It’s funny because it’s both one of the catchiest pop-rock songs in the Devine catalog and also by far one of his most vitriolic condemnations of American policy. He points out the hypocrisy in our interventions in the Middle East, insisting that we “can’t blow people’s countries apart and then demand that they clean up the mess.” It’s a scathing takedown on the way that Americans think: take what we want, and then play the victim when it’s convenient. This doesn’t just apply to the government, though, as he mentions the hypocrisy behind the all lives matter movement: “Can’t preach ‘all lives are equal – unless they’re immigrants, women, or black'” he spits in the song’s second verse.
But, again, the album ends on a positive note: the touching “Before You’re Here” is a beautiful expression of love towards his daughter. (“There’s nothing insubstantial or cliche about a feeling” will go down among Devine’s best lines.) And “I Was Alive Back Then,” as already touched-on, builds to a moment at the end of the song when Kevin Devine can say he’s happy. For all the pain, the anger, the “perpetual war,” he’s able to find some joy at the end of the journey. So, I guess, more than anything else, Instigator is a reminder of that. That there’s always hope for things to get better, even if you have to keep fighting for it. In his recent AMA, Kevin Devine more or less said as much: “Shitty feelings are an unfortunate fact of being a person…’this too shall pass’ has proven to be a true aphorism in my experience.” It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but Instigator truly makes you believe it, and I think that’s a sign of a great musician.
But until the rest of the world realizes that, I’m going keep thinking he’s underrated.