By Megan Paolone
The lead story of indie rock mag Under the Radar’s August/September “Protest Issue” is a piece titled “Changing the World One Song at a Time: The Challenges of Writing Protest Music.” The story features a conversation with some of the more involved musicians such as multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Chris Walla. There’s one person who I believe, however, was missing from this conversation: the ever underappreciated Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine.
“Changing the World” writer Matt Fink uses Bob Dylan and his ’60s remonstrations as the consummate example of the protest singer. He concludes that the final and most difficult hurdle for a protest song to overcome is that it “has to create some sort of response in its listeners.” Devine’s music hits that nail on the head. He’s a Dylan-esque performer who has developed into what I believe defines a contemporary protest singer. He mixes the personal and the political effortlessly, making subtle statements through observation while challenging his listeners to reflect on the world around them.
Since releasing his first album, 2002’s Circle Gets the Square, Devine has gradually developed a small, committed and ever-growing fan base, which has fallen in love with his simultaneously introspective and politicized lyrics. With over six albums and numerous EPs, Devine has delicately struck an effective balance between personal anecdotes and greater political reflection, making his songs relatable on a number of levels. On “Ballgame” from 2003’s Make the Clocks Move, Devine attempts to rationalize his own problems with the larger issue of his brother’s friends serving in Iraq:
“Well either way I realize that my shit’s about as small as it could be
But that makes me feel worse for even feeling this bad in the first place
‘Cause there’s a war starting soon and all the flags will be waving
Daniel’s 20-year-old old friends will be ready, and willing and waiting…
It makes me sad, really, really fucking sad, but at least they act.”
This nearly ten-year-old track is a great example of Devine’s adaptability as a lyricist and how his live shows are a constant rearranging of his words. Split the Country, Split the Street (2005) sees similar reflection on “No Time Flat”:
“I’m not sure why I vote
‘Cause I just don’t know what difference it makes
It seems to me we get the same [lies] from them both
Reforms don’t work, I think it’s time we tried revolt.”
His lyrics are forthright and honest, completely upending one of Fink’s conclusions: “It’s possible that protest songs aren’t a vanishing art as much as they’ve become a covert one.”
While not as overtly political as Dylan or self-proclaimed “topical singer” Phil Ochs, Devine’s music seems to foster a dialogue among his fans, with thoughtful interviews and live commentary. He creates music with meaning, more than just “art for art’s sake.” As Okkervil River’s Will Sheff put it, “Indie-derived music of late has really, majorly had its head in the sand.”
Devine’s music does not. Rather, it takes the conversation to merch booths after shows and onto his Facebook page, where he constantly posts new lyrics. A recent post inspired an intelligent discussion that even he got involved in. While many fans may not agree with all of Devine’s political conviction, and he certainly doesn’t ask them to, they will agree that his music welcomes conversation. His larger observations about humanity and current events pave the way for informed debate, the type of debate that the Occupy Movement hoped to inspire. Devine played at Occupy Boston last October.
At the end of his piece, Fink writes, “…perhaps the real value of protest music isn’t to create change as much as it is to provide a little support to others in their time of need.” The way in which Devine grapples with larger issues makes his music relatable on so many levels. And while this exchange between Devine and his fans is not direct political action, but rather a more selfish need for personal understanding, the beginnings of the discourse that can arise from Devine’s music and the ideas he tackles are what eventually leads to change. Though he writes himself off as a protest singer by his own definition – both in interviews and in songs – Devine’s knack for smart, timely songs certainly earns him a place as a modern-day, more unassuming Dylan.