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The Personal Is Political: Kevin Devine Navigates Good Times And Bad On 'Instigator'

Thursday, 27 October 2016 Written by Huw Baines

Leafing through photographs at his mother’s house, Kevin Devine found a picture that would help his new record, ‘Instigator’, make sense. In it, a Christmas tree shimmers in the background of his childhood apartment on Bay Ridge Parkway in Brooklyn. On one side, Kevin shouts his heart out. On the other his younger brother, Dan, raises a wrestling championship over his head like a post-flying elbow Randy Savage. “I was back there when I saw it,” Devine said.

Back there, he was a kid who looked up to a lot of superheroes. They took the literal, larger-than-life form of Captain America and Spider-Man but also popped up whenever Patrick Ewing was on court for the Knicks or when Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra were at the plate for the Mets. In 1986, when Devine was almost seven, the latter two helped one of the most dysfunctional, charismatic teams of all time win the World Series. To Kevin and Dan, who’s now a sports writer, they were the sort of gutsy, rough-around-the-edges guys who might have grown up in the same neighbourhood they did. “Those were our dudes,” Devine said. “They were scrappy table-setters, they weren’t the big boppers in the middle, the superstars.”

The name of the band Devine first made a dent with, Miracle of ‘86, would explicitly reference those championship exploits, but when Backman and Dykstra are mentioned on I Was Alive Back Then, the beautiful ballad that closes ‘Instigator’, it’s more than idle fodder for his fans to wink along to. It’s a song that takes stock of things. Its third verse recounts the giddy pre-adolescent excitement of that Christmas scene and the friendship between the two brothers. Its second tells the desperate, angry 23-year-old who wrote Ballgame not to be so hard on himself. In another, Devine’s 20-year-old self is asked who he’ll marry by a friend. “I answered your name, years before we would date,” he sings.

It closes with a hopeful look to the future and his mother’s description of the all-encompassing love felt when handed your baby for the first time. But, like the album as a whole, it’s also a song for the realists. Its warmth and allowances for nostalgia are hard-earned. “We were just little kids,” Devine sings. “You were Lenny Dykstra, I was Wally Backman. This was before I got so lonely. With my lovers, with my family. Scared of living. Scared of dying. Scared of being happy.”

“If that song was the last people ever heard from me that would be OK,” Devine said. “It doesn't just tie the record together, in some respects it ties the entirety of what I’ve been trying to do as a songwriter and communicator together. It’s almost like the 36-year-old talking to the 22-year-old and the eight-year-old and the 27-year-old. It’s an inventory song and a place where all of those selves can sit and talk to each other. To me, as best as I can say it, that song is about accepting and allowing for all of the sublime beauty and challenging, painful reality of being a person and living a life.

“You can’t have one without the other. No one gets through unscathed and if you’re lucky and open enough then no one gets through untouched by some kind of grace. I don’t mean some religious, magical realism thing, I mean the magic of being a person in the world. There’s a lot of profound, beautiful experiences available to you and a lot of pain. That’s just how it is. That is all I’ve been trying to say for 15 years.”

After heading into what he terms “the wild west” with the crowd-funded, self-released ‘Bubblegum’ and ‘Bulldozer’ and his Devinyl Splits series, ‘Instigator’ initially appears to be an exercise in scaling things back. It’s lithe - 11 songs in 34 minutes - and lands squarely in Devine’s power-pop wheelhouse. Its release, meanwhile, is being handled by Procrastinate! Music Traitors, the label run by Devine’s old friends in Brand New. But appearances can be deceiving.  

This is a record that uses its musical structure to hold a mirror up to the competing strains of its thematic focus and its accessibility ensures that each point drops in the listener's lap. Here we have melodies from the top drawer, songs to make you drop to your knees in praise of power chords and a lyric sheet that will stop you in your tracks. “Building on it every time doesn’t necessarily mean building by volume or quantity,” Devine said. “It means trying to express something different and articulate it more finely.”

‘Instigator’ comes alive in the details; it’s a record that is honest about the complexities of its subject matter. Devine has long approached every song from the same starting point: identifying the human element. For love songs, songs about friends or cultural asides, that’s a given, but doing that with prescient political issues is a different task altogether. Using personal experience for context and deeper, nuanced understanding is one thing, but hijacking a narrative for self-reverential purposes is another.

It’s a hard line to stay on the right side of, but Devine deftly manages it. Whether he’s jabbing a finger in the chest of America’s many hypocrites on Both Ways or outlining disconnected vignettes of 9/11 from the perspective of a lifelong New Yorker on No History, the cumulative effect is one of an open dialogue with a writer who’s invested enough in his subjects to keep giving a shit about them once the last note dies down.

“You’re trying to make poetry and journalism talk to each other over music,” Devine said. “All of those things are different tools in a toolbox, they live in the same space and there’s a first-person component to journalism as well. There’s a subjectivity to non-news reporting. I’m not trying to be a news reporter, I’m trying to convey what those things mean in a person’s life.

“It’s more the feeling than the fact, more how you process it. With September 11, I was there. How did this affect people? In imagistic, half memory-half dream, lived in ways. It’s not a political conversation until it is. Initially it’s a ‘what happened that day?’ conversation, and what happened afterwards. If you don’t establish the personal, sometimes you can’t credibly speak to the political. I’m trying to do that as best I can.”

That comes sharply into focus on Freddie Gray Blues. Last spring, Gray, a 25-year-old black man from Baltimore, sustained fatal injuries in the back of a police transport van. Public demonstrations and unrest in the city followed, while his name become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite facing a number of charges relating to Gray’s death, none of the officers involved were convicted of any crime.

“You were just 25 when they ended your life, when to serve and protect meant break your legs, snap your neck,” Devine sings over an acoustic lament. But he’s not a casual observer. His father, grandfather, uncles and cousins were or are cops. The song is an indictment of institutionalised racism, white privilege and an ingrained, broad lack of empathy written by someone who, as Devine puts it, has skin in the game. “I know not every cop is a racist, murdering cop, but this is bigger than the people I love,” he sings. “The system’s broken, not breaking. It’s done.”

“Freddie Gray and all of these fucking horrific cases, it’s not new. Black people in America will certainly tell you it’s not new,” Devine said. “But the militarised weaponry that cops in America, literally stuff that’s left over from Afghanistan and Iraq, use as tools for policing in a lot of these communities, that’s new. The speed and access and visibility social media and phone cameras afford, that’s new. Institutionalised racism and the treatment of black people by instruments of power in America is as old as the slave trade. Until we are OK with reckoning with that in a serious way, that’ll be a shitty part of what the American identity experiment is.

“I come from police. I come from proud police. I come from people that I know from personal experience are not bad, narrow-minded, myopic instruments of power. They’re not pieces on a chess board, they’re people. All of those things can be true at the same time. It’s a more complicated story than a false binary.

"The idea that if you say Black Lives Matter you have to say All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter is also false to me. We’re saying one because it needs to be said. The other is implied by how society works every day. When it is implied through society that black lives matter as well, of equal measure, then we don’t have to say it anymore. That’s how I feel. I can say that in a song, but I can’t write that song if I don’t have that experience in my family.”

Devine has long been an interesting songwriter. For decent stretches of a discography that’s now stately in size, he’s actually been a great one. But ‘Instigator’ is different. Like the best pop songs, it is an exchange of information that makes you feel more alive while it’s happening. Its melodies will sweep you from your feet instantly. Its lyrics will sink beneath the surface more gradually. Both will stay with you.

‘Instigator’ is out now on Procrastinate! Music Traitors.

Kevin Devine Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun January 29 2017 - BRISTOL Thekla
Mon January 30 2017 - NOTTINGHAM Bodega Social Club
Tue January 31 2017 - MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
Wed February 01 2017 - GLASGOW Stereo
Thu February 02 2017 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Fri February 03 2017 - LONDON Dome

Click here to compare & buy Kevin Devine Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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