By Eli Shively, General Manager
Key Tracks: “Freddie Gray Blues,” “Both Ways,” “I Was Alive Back Then”
Kevin Devine is a songwriter’s songwriter. His greatest works don’t grab you by the eardrums right off the bat; they pull you slowly inward, the beckoning combination of voice and guitar executed as perfectly as can be. There’s no overwhelming sense of urgency to his work, despite the impressive wealth of material he’s released over the past decade — nine full-lengths, to be exact — just the steady confidence that comes with knowing what you’re doing is good, regardless of whether or not anyone pays attention.
On Instigator, the aforementioned ninth full length, Devine breaks down this precedent of non-urgency little by little, if only for the sake of the chosen subject material. The record is pretty much split between personal and societal statements, featuring songs like “Daydrunk” (an exploration of his struggles with substance use) and “Both Ways” (a sarcasm-riddled dig at white privilege) located side-by-side on the track list.
The record is at its strongest, however, when both of these perspectives are combined into one. “Freddie Gray Blues,” a strikingly self-aware protest of racist police violence, shows Devine at his most vulnerable — yet the defiant nature of the lyrics and where they’re coming from is what really makes the song great. “This is bigger than the people I love,” he sings, in reference to the amount of law enforcement in his family. It’s a powerfully self-aware statement of sympathy.
What’s just as powerful about Instigator is the instrumental bite it offers right out of the gate, and edge that’s been introduced to Devine fans in smaller doses throughout his catalog. He doesn’t let up as much as he has in the past, however, dishing out uptempo track after uptempo track topped with wailing leads and gigantic sing-along choruses. The attitude of the music and lyrics matches the record’s title — Devine is here to discuss big things in a big way, whether you like it or not.
The result is Kevin Devine like no one’s ever heard him before, and that’s a remarkably good thing. Often painted as a loyal denizen of the sad, acoustic side of punk rock, with Instigator he’s grabbing his well-worn sound by the horns and steering it in a bold new direction. If not one of the catchiest and most well-spoken releases of the year (which it is), this record is certainly a breath of fresh air. In using his wealth of talent to communicate with listeners in a whole new way, Devine’s proved once again that he’s not going anywhere. Nor should he.