On “Carnival,” a six-minute-plus epic cut off his fourth album, Brother’s Blood (out April 28), Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine weaves a nightmarish tale of a night tainted by “drugs and consequences,” that concludes with his protagonist waking up scared and confused in a hospital bed. Overdubbed, screamed vocals and jagged bursts of guitar shrapnel — a departure for the oft-reserved Devine — help to set the dark mood sonically.
“‘Carnival’ is a nightmare song,” Devine tells SPIN.com. “It’s a song about buckling under the weight of your bad choices, bad behavior, about loss of control and lost love.” As Devine’s character regains consciousness in the ICU, he realizes that the frightening visions he’d been having — a surreal mix of lions, jilted lovers, and circus scenes — aren’t real, but then he immediately confronts the very real possibility that his lover, whose voice he can hear in the next room, “soon won’t be real either.”
“It’s a conscience song about strain and about waking up from a kind of fever dream… to an even more frightening and absurd but actual set of circumstances,” Devine explains.
The singer-songwriter, who played a number of gigs at last week’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, took over two years to fully flesh out the opus. “Songs live for a while with me sometimes before they’re done and recorded, and even after that they keep changing,” he explains. “I used to mistake that for laziness or lack of confidence before I found out Leonard Cohen takes years to write a lot of his songs. If it’s good enough for him!”
And while Devine played the song live at solo acoustic shows in early 2008, “Carnival” truly got its legs later last year during sessions for Brother’s Blood, which he recorded with a backing ensemble, the Goddamn Band. “[Band members Chris] Bracco, [Mike] Skinner, and I all spoke about how we thought it should be kind of unsettling and slowly unfolding, building incrementally, patiently, and kind of insidiously,” Devine says. “We lull people in and then sort of jab at them, both with the lyrical content and with some of the sharper, harsher tones that come in near the end.”
One particularly unsettling effect comes towards the end of the song, as it builds from a quiet shuffle to a full-blown rocker. Devine adds a second vocal track on which the singer screams the same lyrics that he’s singing (rather softly) on the lead track, but the screamed track is slightly off in timing. The result is a sort of schizophrenia in which the protagonist’s drug-addled hallucinatory state gets upended by the sharp tones of reality.
“At that point in the lyrics, someone is realizing the severity of the mental and emotional predicament he’s in,” Devine says. “It’s maddening, to the point of a kind of psychic break, and those voices — weaving in and around each other, meeting up to emphasize a few key lines, mumbling and contradicting and making static — just seemed like something worth trying.”
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Listen: Kevin Devin, “Carnival”(DOWNLOAD MP3)