It’s strange when there’s an artist that holds a very special place in your heart for reasons unknown. You know, the kind that almost becomes a significant other to you over time, whose music is there when no one else is, who manages to just understand something about aspects of your personality. It’s events you’ve both gone through, demons you both can’t shake off. Via their music, you feel oddly bonded. For me, Kevin Devine has been one of those artists. And that’s a great thing. It’s wonderful and comforting and, in a lot of ways, Devine replaced the void Elliott Smith left in my life after his untimely passing.
The only unfortunate thing about having a musical relationship with someone is that, well, sometimes, much like in real relationships, they have friends that you just don’t dig. For my fictional relationship with Devine, those people are Manchester Orchestra and their lead singer, Andy Hull. It’s not that I hate Manchester Orchestra. Heck, I’ll even admit that Hull and his Georgian band mates do have talent and they have a couple of songs that I flat-out love but after a few sour Hull-in-concert experiences and the fact that most of their creative output leaves me underwhelmed on a whole, I just couldn’t help but not really like Manchester Orchestra.
So, when it was announced that Devine and the whole Orchestra would be partnering on a new project called Bad Books, I couldn’t help but react with “Oh… Really? Well… I guess that’s cool.” I think it’s sort of how my married roommate would feel if, one day, she came home from work and her husband told her that he’d traded in their only car for a Vespa. “Well… I feel like that’s a poor investment but… It still drives… So I think I can live with it for now.” (Full disclosure: I know for a fact that my roommate would be the one trading in the car and she would trade it in for a pony, thus resulting in a marriage altering fight between the two about how a pony just isn’t practical, Sarah.)
“Well,” I figured, “I adore Devine. So I guess I’m going to have to live with this ‘Bad Books’ nonsense and hope Hull doesn’t do to more of Devine’s songs what he did to ‘I Could Be With Anyone’ (Those “la”‘s! Oh jesus, those “la”‘s!) and who knows, maybe I had Hull figured wrong all this time. Maybe he and K. Dev. will turn out a lovely collaboration!”
Um, yeah, about that…
Alright. So let’s get something straight. This album is not bad. It is good. But what it plays out like is a split, not a collaboration. I expected more, especially from Devine, and the fact of the matter is that Bad Books isn’t remotely cohesive. “Texas” sounds like Hull’s solo project, Right Away, Great Captain! “How This All Ends” and “Please Move” would have fit perfectly on any Manchester Orchestra release. In fact, “Please Move” has Devine relegated from “half of the creative drive behind Bad Books” to “Andy Hull’s background vocalist”. The songs where true collaborations do happen are few and far between. “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” is one of the few songs that does sound like the musicians actually spent time tossing ideas back and forth but the fact that Hull’s voice overpowers Devine’s so makes the whole song, while catchy, a bit grating on the ears.
The fact of the matter is that Devine is at his best when he’s a folk artist. Songs like “You’re a Mirror I Cannot Avoid” and “Mesa, Arizona” exemplify this perfectly. However, two amazing songs out of ten does not a great album make. Couple that with the fact that lead single “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” shines so incredibly as a solo number and you might not be wrong if you’re starting to think that maybe Devine’s contributions to Bad Books might have been better set aside for a while and transformed into a fully cohesive acoustic album from Devine. Brother’s Blood, Devine’s 2009 disc, was one of my favorites of that year but I know the man has more to offer than he put forth on Brother’s Blood. Personally, I’m still waiting for Devine’s masterpiece and I feel as if that masterpiece should be a straightforward folk album.
When I hear the phrase “collaboration”, I can’t help but think something along the lines of what Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan churned out a few years back with The Ballad of Broken Seas. If a marriage of sorts is going to happen between two musicians, particularly two well respected musicians with a fervid fanbase (as both Devine and Manchester Orchestra do have), I expect a back-and-forth songwriting process, alternating vocals, and, well, something different from what they’ve done solo. All of those things are lacking on Bad Books and it’s left me feeling sort of cold.
The good news is that fans of Devine can snag the record and assemble a wonderful EP from the songbird. (Is that term too effeminate to describe a dude? Whatever, he sings like a sweet baby angel.) But if you were here looking for artistic growth, a folkier version of Manchester, or a harder edged version of Devine, it ain’t here.
And, while we’re on the subject of Devine singing with his musical brethren, can we just lament the fact that a Brand New-Devine collab was limited to just one lovely, alt-country rendition of Brand New’s “Jesus”? Devine and Lacey? Now THAT would be a record.