The Return Of Howard Devoto and Magazine

This past week brought new tracks from Mazzy Starr for the first time in fifteen years, about the same rhythm of return as Halley’s Comet.  The news that Magazine would suddenly show up with an excellent new album, No Thyself, three decades after The Correct Use Of Soap, and more than 20 years since Howard Devoto was last heard from (in the band Luxuria), brings to mind not so much the looping trajectory of a distant comet, but some strange cicada, buried underground and suddenly emerging into view.

And how do we look after all these years? It’s not entirely accurate to say they sound just the same.  After all, the glorious John McGeoch died in 2005, leaving Noko, Devoto’s partner in long-dormant Luxuria, to wield the axe.  Barry Adamson is apparently not on the record, though Dave Formula certainly is.  Noko’s brittle riffs and fluid, impassioned runs show him to be a respectful heir to his predecessor, and Formula still has, well, the right formula.  Devoto was so much older then, and seems so much younger than that now, it’s fair to say the passage of time has been kind.  Even better, they’ve released in 2011 an album we would have liked, maybe even loved, had it been the follow up to Magic, Murder and the Weather on a timetable measured in months, not generations.  

For those to whom this story is new, let us take a walk through time.  Back in the summer of 1978, just as the entire musical world was getting with the program of three-chord rock, from out of nowhere, it seemed, came Magazine, with a debut album (Real Life) that had a synth-frisky and Manzaneran sound.  They seemed an un-ironic version of Roxy Music, closer to the Bowie of Station To Station than, say, the Buzzcocks.  That Howard Devoto had, um, founded the Buzzcocks only made the story richer.  Sublime lyrics, a propulsive beat, by the time they showed up on our shores to play at Hurrah the next summer, Magazine had proved its point.  You could be a punk band and still play intricate rock’n’roll with incredible musicianship and word smithery that was a snarling update on Dylan.  He never had much of a voice, and his phrasing was less clever, perhaps, than Elvis Costello, but even the diminutive Devoto could have clocked Bonnie Bramlett, not the other way around.  They were tough, Magazine was; they’d have to be shot by both sides to go down.

When The Correct Use Of Soap came out a year later, it confounded expectations partly by grafting on a funk sound that made covers of Sly Stone songs not just logical but really great, and it revealed in Devoto a singer unafraid to show emotion.  But then McGeoch left for Siouxsie and the Banshees and soon all we had was an excellent Devoto solo album, Jerky Versions Of The Dream, and seven years later, Luxuria, and then… silence.  Sure, we could hear Magazine through other bands.  They were the chassis on which Garbage drove.  But we lamented their absence, especially not having Devoto, who was a wonderfully protean figure, clever and admirable in his willingness to stand tough and somehow still be vulnerable.

Now, all these years later, comes No Thyself, and it is an angular, hard rocking, lean Magazine that returns.  There’s no mistaking them, even if the pace has slowed down a bit.  A parallel may be found in Radio Birdman’s return with Zeno Beach, but to me this feels lighter, and I’d just as soon listen to it as to the old stuff, which is a very big deal for a reunion album.  Devoto hasn’t mellowed, and if this is Dad Rock, it’s the kind of rock that dad’s who still wear black jeans will love.

We had no idea this was in the works, even though we rejoiced two years ago with the news that Magazine had reformed.  But we thought that was just to play gigs.  To have come back from the great beyond to put out an album this fine is a story of redemption worthy of a Howard Devoto song.

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