Few bands have been as quietly influential as Devo has. First stepping onto the scene with their series of videos on devolution, and following it up with a full length album in 1978, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Devo’s had relatively mediocre success despite being at the forefront of the new wave, post punk music scene. Fueled mainly by the success or its lead single, “Whip It”, Freedom of choice, Devo’s third album, Freedom of Choice, is a noticeable change of musical style from their 1978 debut. That’s not to say, however, that change is a bad thing, especially for Devo, with this album bringing them the most commercial success they’ve ever met, and while it is a change musically, Freedom of Choice retains the cynical Devo mentality in its lyrics and message.
Freedom of Choice starts off with the offbeat, “Girl U Want”, and right away, the strengths and weaknesses of the album are revealed. Devo manage to make “Girl U Want” a very catchy song, opting for adequate simplicity over a mess of complexities. Mixing a few elements, such as synthesizers, into their usual, more guitar oriented sound, Devo’s sound has become much more poppy in its feel. However, different elements are more widely utilized on Freedom of Choice than have been on previous releases. “Girl U Want” doesn’t have a very strong vibe to it. Mark’s vocals seem very bored, and disengaged from the rest of if the song, though it’s plausible that it’s intentional, as Devo has never been much for convention.
Still, even as it may be an intentional flaw, the lack of emotion on Mark’s part drags down a bit on the feel of Freedom of Choice. The next track, “It’s Not Right”, is no exception to this rule, as the positives and negatives drag on to yet another track. While the first couple of tracks of this album aren’t very indicative of the rest, they do present a bit of an obstacle for first time listeners to overcome. It’s not really until the next song, “Whip It” that Devo begins to garner some interest apart from mediocrity.
Freedom of Choice’s lead single, “Whip It”, essentially epitomizes most of what Freedom of Choice is about. Combining a simple, catchy, repeated guitar riff overtop an ever unchanging drum beat and a synthesizer laden atmosphere, “Whip It” maintains a very upbeat and mainstream appeal to it, meanwhile, lyrically, dealing with much more complex and darker subject matter – Devo describes the song as a parody of self help philosophies, and as an attack on the Regan administration. Unlike its two predecessors, Mark’s vocals on “Whip It” are slightly more fitting. Though still retaining the disengaged quality if the previous two tracks, the overall feel of “Whip It” is enhanced by this style of singing.
Following the lead single, most of the songs become either hit or miss. The songs start to blend in with each other, following the formula mostly set in “Whip It”, though not always pulled off quiet as well. “Snowball” is an interesting, synth-driven song. As with many Devo songs on Freedom of Choice, it’s quite an upbeat song, though traces of a dark undertow exist, giving it a quite creepy feel. Mark’s boring vocals work yet again, this time adding to the dark vibe of the song.
Continuing on Freedom of Choice, Mark’s voice begins to gain character. “Ton o’ Luv” is the first track for Mark to convey some emotion aside from despondence. On “Ton o’ Luv”, Freedom of Choice takes a turn toward a more lighthearted feel. With this change, Freedom of Choice becomes a bit more fun to listen to, though in essence, nothing else has changed.
Up to this point, and throughout much of the rest of the album, nothing much on Freedom of Choice stands out very much. Even their biggest hit, “Whip It” manages to find comfort in a sonic niche alongside many others on the album. It’s not until the two tracks, “Freedom of Choice” and “Gates of Steel”, that Freedom of Choice moves into its shining moments.
Save for “Girl U Want”, little of the album has been very guitar driven. While guitar is utilized on most of the tracks, it’s usually found a place in the back, allowing for the synth and drums to take more control of the music. “Freedom of Choice” presents a change of pace in this trend. Guitars become more prevalent than before, and synth takes a back seat, only reappearing temporarily for a brief interlude. “Freedom of Choice” represents a wider range of diversity for Devo on this album. All signs of disengagement in Mark’s voice have disappeared and quite a different approach is taken. Mark’s voice is challenged more on “Freedom of Choice” than any of the previous tracks, and it pays off. With more feeling and strength, his voice becomes more of an instrument, hitting higher notes as the song progresses.
“Gates of Steel”, one of the simplest songs on the album, is by far one of the best. Unlike the all of its predecessors, in which either guitar or synth tooks charge, both are mixed together perfectly, with neither one truly outshining the other. The result is astonishing and powerful. Even as most of the songs on Freedom of Choice feign in comparison to the masterpiece that is Devo’s debut, “Gates of Steel” manages to forge its way as one of Devo’s best songs.
After “Gates of Steel”, however, and much to the dismay of the listener, Freedom of Choice never truly regains its greatness. The rest of the tracks all fall into place, sounding essentially the same, over and over again. While still decent tracks, the repetitiveness becomes excessive, and come the second track after “Gates of Steel”, the album loses much of its appeal. This loss of interest is sure to turn off many listeners, which is a bit of a shame, because the last track, “Planet Earth” redeems the album slightly.
Overall, with Freedom of Choice, Devo has managed to make a fairly consistent album, though in this case, it’s the consistency that brings it down, feigning to their most awesome debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! The first half of Freedom of Choice offers a promising bunch of tracks, with only one standing on the verge of disinterest, but come the second half, the album becomes increasingly repetitive, relying on the basic elements of “Whip It” and managing to sound like “Ton o’ Luv”, the weakest song of the first half of the album. Interestingly enough, most of the songs on this album are better enjoyed watched live.
Bottom line, for anyone interested in learning more about Devo, this is not the best album to start with. Pick up a copy of their debut, Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo!, first. Not only is that the better of the two, I’ve found that it’s especially more easy to come by at the local music store.
I rate this album a 3.5 out of 5.