What Devo can teach us about the death of the album

Vinyl is an unusually stunted medium. It hasn't grown much beyond Brian Wilson's quaint ambition nearly 45 years ago to record an entire LP — the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds — without clunkers. In 2009, with CD sales plummeting and death-of-the-album talk reaching new levels of hysteria, it's time for recording artists to provide listeners with a broader experience.

Back in 1978, Devo already had different goals for recorded music. The group sought to immerse the public in a parallel world's worth of organized confusion. Its debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, was a symbol-laced multimedia assault. It included cover art depicting an airbrushed illustration of golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, tunes that turned the preceding 20 years of rock iconography on its head, and some of the first music videos produced by an American band, clips that paraded the stock of characters Devo developed through years of performance art pranks.

In 2009, 31 years after Are We Not Men? first appeared, the long-player's fate may hinge on Devo's original model, which suggested the art of making albums could go far beyond the recording studio.

Are We Not Men? contains so many ideas that to make sense of it, listeners are forced to follow its various threads. Devo made a short film addendum promising The Truth About De-Evolution, which was excerpted during the band's album-promoting appearance on Saturday Night Live. The live performances from the group's debut tour edged on the Theater of Cruelty. Archival footage shows a searing wall of noise scoring Mark Mothersbaugh's lurch into the audience, the frontman wearing little more than wrestling shorts and an infant mask.

We can follow the record's trail even further to the band's obscure sources of inspiration. Devo's first step toward Are We Not Men? wasn't a new piece of gear or a blazing riff, but a magazine clipping. In summer 1974, the group discovered a dismissive Time review of The Beginning Was the End, an instantly debunked book about monkey cannibalism and its disastrous effects on evolution. An entire year passed before the band finally tracked down a copy. The album's foundation was laid during the time the musicians spent dreaming up the book's missing details. Are We Not Men? sustains a rigorously odd and enveloping world unmatched by other records, thanks to the way The Beginning Was the End worked on the band's imagination.       

Devo's lasting contribution to pop remains the zeal with which the members pursued their pseudo–science fiction on Are We Not Men? The graphic sprawl of the album's sleeve, which used provocative stills from The Truth About De-Evolution in place of more traditional group shots, enriched the album's songs. The record was designed to draw listeners in, clue by clue, only to push us back into our anxious world with a fresh perspective.

If music is going to matter in the digital age, it will need the generous cultural space albums carve out. But bands who dare to make long-players also have to reset listeners' expectations, using packaging as cunningly as Devo did — not just exploitatively, with deluxe box sets flashing graphic bling and audio dregs.

If you need a precedent fresher than Devo's, try Edinburgh's Ghost Box label, which ingeniously blends its artists' half-formed retro-futurist tunes with graphics connecting the dots between, say, England's Brutalist architecture and the occult. There's also Fever Ray, the solo project from the Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson. The graphics on her debut eponymous album were inspired by a set of photos she gave designer Martin Ander. Adapting the mood of the singer's photos, Ander's sleeve suggests a wordless graphic novel with a story he insists is encoded in the details.

Like novels or films, albums should be industrious feats of creative endurance, works cast out from a thoroughly examined worldview. Devo's first recording was the product of nearly five years' refinement. Thirty-one years later, Are We Not Men? is still worth our time.

 
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