Kevin Devine is a phenomenal songwriter in the same way Billie Joe Armstrong is a great songwriter. His songs can be very simple, but they’re all pretty catchy, and the lyrics and vocals are at the forefront. He’s also most well-known for mixing both intensely personal lyrics with some political views peppered in. Where Armstrong has gotten vague, Devine has become hyper specific, and Instigator is one of the best records of 2016.
Where songs about drinking alone, unrequited crushes and self-pity may have become old-hat, Devine’s latest is one of his best and most refreshing albums. Instigator is mostly a record about making peace with the world you live in. The title track and “Magic Magnet” romanticize both the good and bad in relationships. Devine is both madly in love and wants to have arguments with you (when you need to). The best part of these songs is the seeming glee that Devine presents them with. The guitar tones are bright, and the tempo is up. Both songs sound like driving down a Los Angeles highway in the summer time. “No One Says You Have To” is about as mellow as the album gets, but the quick fingerpicking and soothing tone are equally as positive. “Before You’re Here” is a beachy song about anticipating the birth of his daughter.
Even what appear to be Devine’s darkest personal moments have a positive twist on them. In “Daydrunk,” Devine sings:
But daydrunk is what I used to be
No Jimmy Buffet song
No island imagery
Bellies on the bar
Elbows up with me.
Despite the darker imagery depicting Devine’s alcohol and drug abuse, he sings it in a cheery, poppy little song. The album closer, “I Was Alive Back Then,” reflects on some larger moments in his life-depression, Christmas mornings, marriage. The song’s repeated chorus of “I was alive back then” makes it seem like Devine is beginning his midlife crisis at 36, but when he ends, he sings, “I was alive back then/Now, I am again,” singing about the birth of his daughter. It’s the most somber, sobering moment of the album.
Following the first three upbeat numbers, Devine gives us “Freddie Gray Blues.” It’s a haunting track that tackles not only the current issues of police brutality, but Devine addresses his own white-privilege from a very self-aware point of view. He also offers this different point-of-view that leaves a lot of people conflicted:
When I’m talking these killer cop blues
I’m kinda talking my family to you
See, my dad was a cop
And his dad was a cop
And my uncles were cops
And my cousins were cops
I’m partly here because of cops
And I love all those cops
And I know not every cop
Is a racist, murdering cop
But this is bigger than the people I love
The system’s broken
In a song like this, Devine mixes his two styles beautifully, and he’s penned a protest song as good as Bob Dylan’s “The Hurricane.”
“Both Ways” is a surf-punk jam that both satirizes and criticizes the United States. The song is mainly calling out hypocrisy that mostly seems to be calling out right-wing conservatives. One of Devine’s most clever lyrics is “You can’t weaponize Jesus/and be shocked when the heathens shoot back.” At the same time, it seems Devine is praising the United States for being a nation that could allow both, or he could be understanding of where both sides come from. He could also just be satirical.
This brings us to perhaps my favorite Kevin Devine song ever written. “No History” is a song about the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. The song crams a range of emotions into three and a half minutes. The song begins sounding like a search party. Devine recounts the day of the attacks, his own coping, and turning to his father to try to make sense of it all. Devine sings as his father, “I know I see it/I thought it made sense. I don’t anymore.” The chorus erupts into a word salad of confusion where Devine sees a destroyed city, anger at Muslims, and a mourning nation. Before the final chorus, Devine reflects on how far we’ve come from that day. We’re still in a world where we’ve fought a war on terror that, at times, seems to have gone nowhere. Still, he reflects on seeing his niece as an infant, and how life does go on. “This is the future: severe and always happening.” It’s a song that’s powerful, to say the least. Devine’s politics may not be for everyone, but he certainly presents himself in an honest way that demands your attention.