Kevin Devine is not the voice of his generation, a point he states rather emphatically. The question of who Devine speaks for, though, stems from the political nature of his songwriting, which occasionally tackles topics with the straight-ahead purpose of early Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs. And, if you've visited his website at all in recent weeks, you would have been confronted with a fraught piece of songcraft called, "Talking Freddie Gray Blues." And, like the very best of protest songs, this one seems urgently important to our times.
"I can't say anything smarter or more generous of spirit or feeling or anything about what's going on, and nothing that hasn't been said a million times and more eloquently," Devine says. "As a straight white male, there's a lot going on in the culture right now that I would be best suited to just listen to rather than speak about with any kind of authority. But I think part of this song is claiming that space and articulating that thought in public and connecting it to what's happening."
The tune itself is a dark, spindly, talking blues track with a loping melody that uses a bare-bone acoustic guitar figure and rudimentary chords to ruminate not just on the tragedy of Freddie Gray's death but on the failed promise of our criminal justice system and the still-knotty issue of race in this country. The first verse delivers a harrowing description of what happened to Gray, but then Devine pivots to speaking about his many family members who were in the NYPD.
"This is bigger than the people I love/ the system's broken, not breaking, it's done," he sings, grounding his perspective in the personal while invoking deeper structural problems. He doubles down in the third verse, noting the luxury of his white privilege while others are "crushed in stacked decks, institutions and death."
He wrote the song after attending a Black Lives Matter protest in New York following Gray's death, but he credits his broader perspective, fittingly, to growing up in and around the local punk and hardcore scene on Staten Island in the 1990s.
"That scene was radical," Devine recalls. "That was the first place I ever heard anybody talk about veganism, straight-edge, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, animal cruelty — any kind of anti-American establishment anything. That was the first place I ever heard it talked about."
Devine wasn't a punk rocker himself. "I was always playing in bands that were kind of shitty knock-offs of Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana that the hardcore kids let me play with them," he says. Not surprisingly, his music skitters around between rattling, Teenage Fanclub-style power pop and a more measured and intricate indie-folk style that has won favorable comparisons to Elliott Smith, and he most often lands somewhere in between the two.
He's quick to note, though, that his musical heroes Kurt Cobain and R.E.M's Michael Stipe also spoke passionately about social justice issues even if their music was a bit more elliptical in addressing it.
"The bands that were big influences on me at a formative time were always subverting classic pop shorthand," Devine explains. "If you really listen to Nevermind, they're like children's songs. They are really simple, three and four chords, and the guitar solo is almost always the vocal melody. And the melodies are repeated a lot — they are meant to get in your head. It's very streamlined songwriting — it just happens to be played by kids who had a facility for punk music and grew up in those worlds."
And that's largely how Devine sees himself and the kind of music he makes. Just as with his politics, there's a striking level of self-awareness that never devolves into debilitating self-consciousness when he talks about his art. Both Cobain and Elliott Smith, whom he shares a strong vocal resemblance with, are admitted inspirations. Devine's even recorded a cover record of Nevermind, which is available for free online.
"Most of what I love touches on the Beatles somewhere," he muses. "[Smith] was basically trying to be all of the Beatles by himself and still adding something of his own to it — which, miraculously, he kind of did, which is sort of like saying someone hit .500 in a baseball season."
Although Devine might never reach the commercial heights of either of those forbearers, he seems happy and humble about having spent the last decade making a living "on the back of songs." "It's kind of like running like a small business at my level," he says, and it requires a lot of DIY grunt work and a heavy touring schedule to make ends meet. "But given what most people's lives are, I've been afforded a relative freedom."