Thank Devoto, Magazine are back and they’re making indie rock fans everywhere choke on our proclamations that long-broken up bands should stay that way and resist the temptation to reform, tour, and perhaps record. At best, these reformations simply cannot attempt to reclaim the power and (usually youthful) anger that our favourite and most articulate punk and post-punk bands possessed in their heydays, and at worst they serve as little more than vanity projects or one-last-hurrah tours that squelch both long-time and new fans’ enthusiasm with aging, jaded rockstar apathy. As a post-punk fan who wasn’t born when these bands peaked, never mind initially formed, I have taken an interest in some of my favourite groups’ activities over the last year or two, most memorably seeing Gang of Four in Toronto early this year as they promoted their recent Content album. While seeing Andy Gill and Jon King live was one of the highlights of my year, and indeed of my gigging experience thus far, Content didn’t quite have the resonance for me that the gig had. Where Gang of Four tried their damndest to make the kind of self-aware, political, and angry record that defined them during their 1979-82 peak, Content lacked the kind of tongue-in-cheek playfulness that No Thyself contains in spades.
In fact, No Thyself could serve as a textbook of sorts for making a successful comeback as middle age creeps in and self-discipline falters. Of course, of all the middle-aged rockers making comebacks in the last several years, Howard Devoto was sure to stand head and shoulders above the rest, at least lyrically, right? The man who formed Buzzcocks with Pete Shelley in 1975 only to depart two years later to form Magazine, an entirely artier and more experimental project, also made an acclaimed solo album in 1983, Jerky Versions of the Dream, and formed Luxuria in 1987 with Norman Fisher-Jones (aka Noko). He’s also collaborated with an array of other musicians for various one-off projects, notably reuniting with Shelley and in 2001 releasing the LP Buzzkunst under the name ShelleyDevoto. Throughout these projects, he’s always seemed too smart for mere rock posturing; indeed, his work in music has veered toward the aggressively arty, sometimes inscrutable end of the rock spectrum.
Magazine’s reformed 2009 line-up was almost identical to their “classic” line-up from about 1979-80: Devoto, John McGeoch, Barry Adamson, Dave Formula, and John Doyle. The one exception came in the form of Noko, who took the place of guitarist John McGeoch (who passed away in 2004) for touring. No Thyself sees Magazine with one further personnel change: Jon “Stan” White has replaced bassist Barry Adamson, but otherwise a tried-and-true line-up of former Magazine members and a seasoned Devoto collaborator have unleashed No Thyself on 2011’s musical clime. As it turns out, Devoto and the current incarnation of Magazine have proved hopeful fans right and doubters wrong. And, I have to say, it feels like a triumphant fist pump to write that.
No Thyself is a monster – no, I’m not just talking about the bizarre yet somehow completely appropriate Odilon Redon cover art featuring a grinning, furry, cyclopean creature. A simultaneously immediate indicator of interesting things to come is, of course, the title. No Thyself suggests a denial of the overblown and inflated rockstar ego I mentioned earlier. With this title, Magazine are denouncing any kind of passive, resting-on-their-laurels approach in favour of active engagement with the strange world they see around them, imbuing today’s social climate with a sharp, dry sense of humour and a willingness to explore content that other bands wouldn’t go near.
No Thyself leaps into existence with “Do the Meaning” (and No Thyself’s only cut co-written by Pete Shelley) and the words “one last time, with too much meaning,” a clever play on the phrase “once more, with feeling” (this aphorism surfaces later in the song). “Do the Meaning” is a pleasing play on words, reducing ‘meaning’ to a dance move, but more than that the title emphasizes that meaning is something we must actively engage with in order to reveal meaning instead of passively waiting for meaning to reveal itself to us. Devoto has spoken about the multiple meanings that his lyrics have and how his point is often to accentuate their plurality rather than any simple, single interpretations. “Do the Meaning” feels like a reflection on No Thyself’s very existence; a call to arms for Magazine to jump up and pick up where they left off (or perhaps slightly before they left off, 1981’s disappointing Magic, Murder, and the Weather being a less-than-prime jumping-off point): smarter, sharper, and more dryly funny than roughly 98% of bands out there.
The next cut, “Other Thematic Material,” plunges listeners into a discomfiting series of pornographic descriptions that feel a bit like being a fly on the wall during any old (hetero)sexual encounter: provocative just because these things aren’t spoken of in most company, and particularly so because these passages are broken up with more typically banal things that are spoken of in polite company. “Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies)” continues to provoke as Devoto commends Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain for using suicide to end their lives while young, productive, and universally acclaimed. Serving as a kind of wry, wearied, and experienced response to The Who’s famous refrain “I hope I die before I get old,” “Hello Mister Curtis” shares the same sentiment but with different reasons behind it. However, Devoto, who turns sixty next year, is clearly far past the youth that clung to Curtis and Cobain when they died, both in their twenties. He does end the song expressing a desire to end up like Elvis did, namely “on some godforsaken toilet.” Delightfully cynical stuff indeed.
Elsewhere, Devoto continues the theme of mortality on “Holy Dotage”, a frustrated treatise on the sharp division between body and mind that occurs in old age. That frustration comes through in the typically elegant Devoto turn-of-phrase: “Dim, diminished seventh of myself/ My fat mouth is slobbering on the inessentials of my soul/ I’ve reduced them to one.” In his holy dotage, he’s “more mortal than ever.” This is contrasted with some of the most upbeat, aggressive rock music on the album, providing a satisfying burst of youthful vitality despite the inevitability of old age and subsequent death. “Of Course Howard (1979)” has Devoto addressing his 27-year-old self and an apparent holier-than-thou attitude that seemingly ended up creating rifts between him and people once close to him. An absolute stand-out, Devoto has staggeringly produced a deconstruction of his own youthful personality, looking back and seeing his mistakes for what they were: arrogant and hurtful. Creating such a precise, sensitive, and yet cunning song as he realizes the depth of his errors, “Of Course Howard” serves as one hell of a confession: something one is haunted by, something obsessed over, and finally tossed away into the wind, out of one’s control, to be interpreted and made meaningful by others.
Widely hailed as the fourth Magazine album that should have been, this series of ruminations on sex, aging, and mortality gives listeners much insight into Devoto’s current state of mind. Obviously, nagging thoughts of death pervade as he approaches sixty and reflects on his life and work. But his twisted sense of humour is far more pronounced as well, taking these reflections from the realm of the self-serving to the unexpected and productive, all while being wholly entertaining along the way. A dark album all the way through and yet never sinking into depression or hopelessness, No Thyself is Magazine as they once were and have now reclaimed being: powerful, cutting, cunning, and of course, still way more intelligent than most.