AOTY Contender Series: Kevin Devine - 'Instigator'

First, a sidebar: The idea here is to post about one or two albums each week that are album of the year contenders for me this year. I already have a semi-formed idea of which albums are really in the final running to be #1, so this series is more meant to highlight albums that I've loved to a great enough extent that they gave me that type of feeling. Here's all of the pieces so far.

I'm going in no particular order here, and first highlighting Kevin Devine's just-released ninth studio album, Instigator (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube above, Amazon). When Bad Timing Records started working with Kevin in late 2014, we linked up due to Zack's pre-existing relationship with KD, as they'd known each other for several years. I was familiar with Kevin's music, but not extremely well-versed; I knew the "hits" and in particular loved a live album called Matter of Time, which we later re-issued in one of my favorite BTR releases to date.


Point being, I came along a bit late to a fair bunch of KevDev's music. It's fully been a treat to "discover" albums like Make The Clocks Move, which I hadn't listened to much before, and get familiar with some deeper cuts. 

There are no bad KevDev albums. I fully believe that your favorite depends on which album has the highest high points for you, because I think when one of Kevin's songs hits you in the right way (or in a way that may not be the right way, but is certainly some type of way), it hits in an extremely hard and memorable manner. Those high points make for some LPs that provide somewhat uneven listens for me, and this is how I think of much of Kevin's early career. He's become a more impressive songwriter more recently (for whatever my opinion's worth), and some of my favorite work of his was released as part of the Devinyl Splits series we helped him put out over the course of 2015. 

Some of those Splits songs surface again on Instigator, which is my new favorite Kevin Devine album. It's very easy for me to say this -- I already like Instigator more than any other full KD release by far. It's his most complete and consistent album, and a KD record where multiple songs are punching you in the gut in successive order is certainly worth an AOTY contender nomination.

She's no font of Christ-like patience,
And neither, sir, am I.
But she's honest in her imperfections,
So I try, I try, I try.
It gets so scary inside my mind;
I turn straw men into monsters, 
And line their mouths with knives.
I say, "I can't race forever,
Can't raise the rock so high."
She says, "No one says you have to,
Let go and take your time." 

This quote comes from "No One Says You Have To," my favorite song from the Devinyl Splits series, which, like "Magic Magnet," was re-recorded for Instigator. It's a beautiful, beautiful song that gives me shivers each time I listen, and it isn't the only track on the album to do so. "No Why" is a killer opener, "Magic Magnet" is a jam, "Freddie Gray Blues" is chilling, "No History" is a straight jaw-dropper about the September 11th attacks (with an emotional, wrenching acoustic accompaniment), and "I Was Alive Back Then" is a sobering closer to the record. There's greatness in every crevice of this album. "Daydrunk" hits like a bus.

Take "Freddie Gray Blues," which I first heard when Kevin posted it on Facebook in April last year, less than two weeks after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police officers. That Facebook video is just Kevin in his living room, recording himself playing an acoustic guitar singing a song that was probably written a day before. The reason it's striking is not the production level or the music, but the lyricism and emotion in the song, which mourns Gray's death while digging deep into white privilege. Kevin does a fantastic job on the studio version of keeping the focus on the song's message; it sounds almost as if the mix carves out a groove for you to focus on the vocals and lyrics, as the acoustic guitar melds its way into the background to provide a simple backdrop on the track.

Instigator is meaningful, important work from KevDev, it's dynamic and sways back and forth, happy to fit in with you and your mood, and it is, top-to-bottom, his most impressive release. It's the album I've listened to most since getting my copy of it in early summer and an album I'm confident in saying I'll revisit for years and years to come. An AOTY contender, surely, but more importantly, a triumph for a songwriter who's released plenty of affecting and important work throughout the last decade. Also the best album art of the year no matter what tbh.

Part 1 of the AOTY Contender Series.