I've written about Devo before, so some of you may know that though I came to them sort of late (something that is also true about Zappa), they have since become one of my favorite bands.
Still, I was little scared to check out the new album, because, as Marc Masters put it in his Pitchfork review, "there are a few bad omens hovering around Something For Everybody. It's been two decades since Devo last attempted a full album of new music--and 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps wasn't memorable." These seemed to me to be reasonable fears. In any case it has taken me a few months to get around to actually listening to SFE.
Turns out I disagree with much of the rest of Masters' assessment. (That's not surprising when it comes to me and Pitchfork reviewers, alas.) To my ear, most of the good songs on this album are stacked toward the beginning, and the clunkers ("Human Rocket," "Sumthin'," "Step Up," and "Cameo") kick in after track five, not before.
More importantly, I'm not prepared to dismiss the album as "self-parody" or overly "self-conscious," as Masters comes close to doing. (I'm not even sure I understand what "self-parody" would be, if the self in question is a parodist in the first place. How does one parody the act of parody?)
To me, a more productive way to look at this album is to consider what happens when parody effectively becomes the thing it is parodying. Parody on its own implies an omniscient narrator, commenting on something from a perhaps loving, but also superior, critical, and ultimately safe distance. But when parody is taken to its logical extreme, the power relationship is reversed. We're left with failure, because the thing being parodied has proven to be impervious.
I can't help feeling that SFE is chock full of the sound of this dynamic, the sound of Devo being absorbed into the very commercial monster it once mocked from a distance. (What else could explain the presence of autotune on the album?) It's actually kind of scary to listen to, as the parodist's autonomy seems to disappear in a pit of consummate self-abnegation (perfectly symbolized in this case by the very Freudian cover image of a Devo power dome being eaten by a beautiful woman).
If we should all just disappear
The skies and waters will clear in a world without us
The lucky ones are gonna be the first to go.
That is art as a mirror, alright, but it's a mirror that is unafraid to show us the very ugliest part of ourselves (which, the album seems to suggest, is the idea that our society has become parody-proof). And there is almost no sense of a protected vantage point outside the whole mess.
Is it aesthetically "beautiful"? Probably not. Is it effective, or compelling, or powerful? Definitely.