In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Kevin Devine has spent more than half of his 36 years writing and releasing albums in various set-ups and arrangements. His Brooklyn-based band Miracle of 86, which existed from when Devine was in high school in the mid 90s through the early 2000s, is where that story starts for a lot of admirers of his music.
Devine has since collaborated with members of Manchester Orchestra, Brand New, Nada Surf, and Perfect Pussy to name a few, and of course, he is best known for the albums he releases under his own name. Devine has stretched himself between and within various genres that in an early 90s context could probably be put under the vast and vague banner of "alternative," a word that in the climate of contemporary music has lost almost as much meaning as the "indie" in indie rock. Kevin Devine makes rock music. He also makes folk music. He makes chamber pop music. He makes punk-pop (not, he stresses, pop punk). He writes very, very good songs—and he's written a lot of them. In October, he will release his ninth studio album, entitled Instigator, and for a songwriter with a career that has been as long and prolific as his, it is no small task for him to arrange the titles of his dense discography from his least favorite, to his favorite.
"It's nearly impossible," Devine said when we began our three-hour long conversation one August afternoon while his infant daughter napped in the next room. "I had to think hard on it, and this list is completely subjective. It could probably change from day to day. The work itself is the artist's. You own it. It's yours. But the artist doesn't own the perspective. You're too close to it to even have a perspective."
The closing track on Instigator, called "I Was Alive Back Then," puts the Kevin Devine of 2016 face to face with different versions of Kevin Devine from the past, remarking together on really how insane it is to even be a living person and to survive the random coincidence of the world. Speaking free of hyperbole: It is a perfect song.
In the conversation we shared about the past 15 years of his recorded output, as he does so often in his songs, Kevin looked inward first to place himself in the larger context that he occupies. And he does it very, very well.
8. Circle Gets the Square (2002)
Noisey: It's interesting when an artist's first album ends up being their least favorite. The first album unavoidably establishes you, and gives you a jumping off point to work from. It is probably comforting to feel that you have only improved since your first release.
Kevin Devine: I think every artist ever would say, and mean it, that their newest album is their best album because you're learning more things and getting better at certain components of making albums as you go along, and that would inevitably follow some sort of chronology. That first record has some charming qualities: it came out on a hardcore label and I was the only thing on their roster that sounded remotely like that. I was 19 and 20 years old, going to college and playing open mic nights and getting random residencies at small venues in New York. I was still playing in louder rock and punk bands, so this was cool to make a record that was based mainly around an acoustic guitar. It was kind of like that moment in the culture for "punk/hardcore guy goes acoustic" that was happening, like with Chris Carrabba [of Dashboard Confessional].
I don't want to be uncharitable to the 18 year old kid me who wrote those songs, and it's not fair for me at 36 years old to criticize my own lack of ability at the time, but it is impossible for me to listen to that record now. There are vocal harmonies on there that are literally wrong. Just incorrect note pairings. I feel like I didn't know how to sing with any consistency until fairly recently. [Laughs] I really just wanted to be Elliott Smith.
I performed that record solo, start to finish at Webster Hall in 2012, which was the first time I performed some of those songs as an adult. It was nice to relearn it and do that, and be able to put the album to sleep in that way.
7. Make the Clocks Move (2003)
What is it about this album for you that makes it higher in the list than Circle Gets the Square?
Technically speaking, I feel like I had gotten a little better. I got a better understanding of the kinds of songs I wanted to write. Things opened up for me, lyrically, and the songs felt less mannered to write. But I might even like the vocal performances less on this album than Circle Gets the Square. I was just drunk all the time, not sleeping, blowing my voice out. There are vocal takes on that record that, when I hear them, I'm like, "Oh my god." Though there are songs on it that get requested all the time. "Ballgame" is probably within the top five or ten songs people seem to like of mine. You and I wouldn't be talking right now if this record didn't happen. It established me. I was 23 years old and my picture was in the New York Times Sunday Arts section. It wasn't even "We're going to be famous," it really felt like "This is it, it's happened. We're great."
You begin to incorporate themes of social justice and political ideologies into your songs on this album. What was it about what was happening in the world at the time that was having such an impact on your writing?
This record was written between 2001 and 2003. My band at the time, Miracle of 86, was writing what would be our last album at the same time as I was writing the songs that would make up Make the Clocks Move. I went to the other guys in Miracle and said, "I have all these songs, and I don't know if they should be for us. But I will give them to the band if you want to do them." The general consensus was that they didn't feel comfortable with me speaking overtly about politics on behalf of everyone in the band. So there were roughly 20 songs that were just kind of going to hang out, with no purpose. I figured I'd make another record under my name.
If you're living in extreme times, and you're writing about what it is to be a person, it becomes ridiculous not to write about what's happening around you. Growing up within a punk/hardcore/independent music culture in the time before, during and after the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and September 11th, you can see a sort of thick line separating ambivalence in songwriting, and more pronounced aggression or agitation about what was going on politically. Everything got a lot bolder then. It was a paralyzing time to be college-aged and socially minded while all this stuff was happening. The political content was written from my personal perspective not so much in the punk rock finger-pointing way. The songs were more inwardly focused than outward. I have trouble with music that only casts a critical glance at everything outside of the writer's self.
6. Split the Country, Split the Street (2005)
Those first couple albums were done while you were still fronting Miracle of 86. This was the first album of yours to be worked on after that band broke up. Was there an intention to keep the vibe of those first two albums "solo guy with an acoustic guitar" to sonically separate you from your main band at the time? And did this record feel sort of freed and unrestrained from that limitation?
Yes, definitely. This record was the most sonically fleshed out record I had done to this point. What would become The Goddamn Band [Devine's backing band] started to solidify a little bit. There was a larger budget to finance making the album, and we recorded it in a proper studio in Williamsburg. That studio is now a J Crew, but that's a topic for a different day. To me, at the time, it felt like we were making fucking Pet Sounds. [Laughs], like we were really making a demonstrably better and fuller picture than we had before. There are three or four rock songs on that record that definitely would have been Miracle of 86 songs had we not broken up. The album is kind of broad and schizophrenic. There are orchestral moments of just doubled piano and violin, but there are also moments that are fuzzed out and screamy. It just freed up what was possible to be released as an album under my name.
This was also the record that was made by the blurriest version of myself. I was just drunk and on drugs all the time. Not a fun, chilled out, smoke-a-little-weed-at-a-party-type of thing. Like, stay up until seven in the morning on coke type of thing. I remember borrowing $500 from a friend to pay my rent, and instead I spent it on drugs and went to the studio. So that all-over-the-place approach of the songs was reflective of how I was living personally. I definitely think of this record as having its time and place, and I think a lot of people that like my music would probably rank this record as number one or two in their list. In retrospect, if I'm judging all my records on the same plane, I think there are elements of this record that could have been better.
5. Put Your Ghost to Rest (2006)
This was your first and only release on a major label, correct?
Barely, but yes.
When looking back at that experience, do the circumstances around the release and treatment of the record alter your feelings about it?
The way the major label thing happened was insane. I played a CMJ show in New York to about 30 people. Apparently one of them was this guy from Capitol Records who came up to me on the street the next day, said he really liked the show, and wrote his phone number down for me. I just didn't take it seriously at all. I didn't call him for months until my management at the time was like, "What are you crazy? Call him!" Eventually, they offered me a deal that by major label standards was very modest, but for me, who at the time was collecting unemployment and doing bike delivery for [Brooklyn restaurant] Food Swings, it was a transformative opportunity. That was the moment I stopped working other jobs, and from that point on, music was and has been my only job.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles for Capitol Records by Rob Schnapf. I was 25 years old, and I was working with a producer who had made all my favorite records by my favorite artist. When I got there, I was just like, "Whoa whoa whoa I'm not ready for this." I felt like someone was going to pop their head in and say "Just kidding! You don't belong here." The first time I went to do a take of vocals, Rob stopped me and said, "Great. You have a really nice voice. Don't do the 'goat-boy' warble thing. It's a defense mechanism." He was right. I just didn't like what my voice was at the time. I spent seven weeks recording the album, and I'd never spent more than seven days on a record before.
There wasn't really any label pressure to write "hits" or "singles." I think I snuck in at the end of the period of time that major labels would patiently tolerate just an indie-leaning songwriter, like they thought it'd lend credibility to their label.
A month after the album was released, Capitol got fed to Virgin by EMI, which owned both companies. As a result, a bunch of people lost their jobs, 80 percent of the artists on the label got dropped, including me. So this album kind of felt still-born. I then spent two years touring on it, basically like a door-to-door salesman building an audience one show at a time.
4. Bulldozer (2013)
You released this album at the same time as Bubblegum. Were you writing these songs at the same time you were writing Bubblegum? Was it always the plan to do two different records simultaneously?
It was always the plan to do two separate ones. I wanted to see what it would be like to do a proper solo, singer-songwriter record. Inevitably if I'm playing shows solo, people will come up to me and say, "I wish you had the band with you," and the same is true when I do a Goddamn Band tour, people might come up to me and ask "so when are you coming back solo?" I suppose it's a good thing. It means people like both. So the plan was to do both at the same time.
I almost wanted to put this album and Bubblegum together in this list, but thought better of it. I put Bulldozer lower because it didn't come together exactly how I initially wanted it to. I thought it was going to be like Nebraska or something. A really stripped-down record. When I got into the studio, Rob [Schnapf] said he didn't see it that way. He thought I should be playing with musicians I had never played with before, two guys from the band Everest, and see what came together with me out of my comfort zone, not playing with my usual people. I'm always up for expanding musical experiments that Rob wants to try, because I trust him and I always leave an experience working with him feeling better off as a musician than I was before I got there. Though as a result, the songs got more muscular and more full. It became something else from my initial plan, and I feel like on some level I didn't adhere to the vision I had and as a result I give myself a bit of a demerit on that.
What was the experience like releasing two albums at once? Were you rooting for one over the other? Did you think that one was going to be better received over the other, or did you think they both stood on their own on equal footing?
I split the two from each other because they are very different records. I think if I had held Bulldozer back and released it a year later than Bubblegum, it would have gotten a much better shake. I don't necessarily think Bubblegum is better than Bulldozer, I think its more immediate and I think Bulldozer suffered in some ways by being released at the same time.
3. Between the Concrete & Clouds (2011)
What is it about this record that splits the goal posts of the concurrent releases of Bulldozer and Bubblegum?
I sometimes feel the need to defend this record in a similar way that I have to for Bulldozer, because they both suffered as a result of what they were put next to. This came out right after Brother's Blood, and that album has some of my most career-defining material on it. Because of that, Between the Concrete… was really the first time that there was any expectation of what I was going to do next.
At the time, I was listening to the first two Strokes records and the Ramones a lot. I wanted to make ten pop songs that were three to four minutes long. There ended up being too much shit going on. I think it is maybe a little too cerebral, a little too crowded, and a little cold. Though in some respects it may be the most interesting and advanced group of songs, and most interesting execution of those songs, in my catalog. Arrangement wise, it could be the coolest of all of them. But I don't think I grew that much through the process of making this album.
2. Bubblegum (2013)
Jesse Lacey of Brand New produced this album. How do you feel his influence in the studio helped shape these songs? Did you have a full concept of what arrangements you wanted, or was that more collaborative?
There was a lot going for this record, and it was a more attention-grabbing record than Bulldozer was at the time they were both released. The mission statement was clearer to me with Bubblegum than Bulldozer. This came out more like what I thought it would. I wanted it to be a noisy punk/pop record. Jesse had a huge shaping influence in the studio. He wasn't engineering it, but he was the guy in the room saying, "That's cool, this is not cool, let's try this thing," which he excels at. I wanted his influence as a songwriter as well. We've known each other and played shows together since 1999. The experience of working with someone that was so deeply familiar with my music, and has seen and heard me for my entire public career as a musician is irreplaceable. Also it didn't hurt that he is the front person of one of the most enigmatic contemporary indie rock bands. Jesse was completely and totally involved, like a fourth member of the band, for months. He would show up to rehearsals with notebooks to fill. He would jump up and down with excitement when it was clear that an idea was working.
The album was a conscious attempt to channel the part of myself that wanted to step on the pedals and scream and jump around. We made it really like a band would make a record, whereas Bulldozer, I went out and made it on my own. The way it was written, the way the publishing and royalties are broken up, everything. I made it like a three-piece band with the other guys I made it with. I really didn't want to complicate things. I didn't want to take a left turn when a straight line would do just fine. I think it actually executes itself the best out of all of my records. From the first conversations about making it, to sitting at a kitchen table writing it, to rehearsing it with the band, recording it, mixing it. Even the cover art of the melting George Washington painting by Valerie Hegarty was amazing, and said so much about the hollowness of the American dream, and really resonated thematically.
I was able to embody a certain kind of social justice writing that I hadn't really before. I was saying things transparently, rather than purposely obfuscating the subjects. There is a song about Chelsea Manning, there's a song about border politics. They are plainspoken, less philosophical and more journalistic. A lot of the way Bubblegum's lyrical content was developing informed the way that Instigator was accomplished.
1. Brother's Blood (2009)
You said before that you feel like Bubblegum came together the truest to how you had wanted it to in the outset of any of your records, so what is it about Brother's Blood that has it ranked higher, and tops your list as your favorite album?
It is the most overflowing with interesting ideas. It was three years that I had to write this after Put Your Ghost to Rest, which felt like a lifetime. It was a complete reset, and it pivoted me toward wherever I've landed at now in my career. We could be as forceful and dynamic as any rock band in this period, and it was the most sonically explorative record to that point. We did some more psych-influenced stuff, and had three guitar players. We were trying to play like Built to Spill covering Neil Young. That was the thought process and mindset we had. I hadn't done anything like that before. There was a darkness in this record that hadn't been there prior. I consciously didn't want to think about anything I had done previously, and just let this happen without any preconception.
So, sonically, you didn't want to have to answer for anything you had done previously, but because this was the album chronologically following Put Your Ghost to Rest, was there at all a feeling of having to outdo that major label release, especially with how the label shake-up occurred?
After what happened with Capitol Records, I didn't even know if I would make another record. There was this feeling of "well… is that it? Am I a 26-year-old has-been? Or a never-was?" Eventually I realized thinking that way is crazy, and you're going to do this regardless and you're going to see who shows up and who doesn't. Those people don't get to make that decision for you. But that feeling went into making this record. I don't know if I'm going to do this again, so I'm going to throw everything into it.
It felt bigger. This might be a weird word to self-apply, but I'm going to say there was a little bit of swagger when playing it live. There was a healthy amount of "fuck it" in that record.
Every media outlet and journalist I could have ever wanted to write about my music has written about it at some point, but it's never happened all at the same time. Every festival I could ever want to play has had me play, but not all on the same record cycle. This album was as close to a consensus in perspective that it was the record, but it wasn't really even that. Though if someone hasn't heard my music before and said to me "show me one album, where should I start?" I would start them with Brother's Blood because I think it showcases everything I am capable of, for better or worse.
Mike Campbell performs with Laura Stevenson and Latterman, and is on Twitter - @mikedcampbell