Did Fucked Up dodge a bullet or are they just impervious? In releasing their third LP, and first rock opera, David Comes to Life, the band chose to take quite the leap of faith. The concept album/rock opera has set some of the greatest rock acts of all time into the annals of fame, including the Who, Alice Cooper, the Kinks and David Bowie. But, it has also shuttled some of those same groups into a slow death of declining relevance. But, here, Fucked Up utilizes the songs on David more as set pieces than narratives, and create an album that is both deceptively simple and complex.
Although the album is about a young man that may or may not have killed his lady friend, you probably couldn't figure that out from reading the lyrics. Rather, as characters walk in and out through the tracks, openly declaring their thoughts much like ancient Greek theatre, the album comes off more as a series of character studies that, despite the deceiving detail, also has a vagueness that lets the listener put the pieces together as he or she will.
Immediately upon hitting play, the cohesiveness of the album's sound becomes apparent. Although the band has steadily distanced themselves from standard hardcore, even on their last LP, 2008's The Chemistry of Common Life, a certain angularity remained in the riffs, giving the songs a swinging and identifiable progression. But here, perhaps to echo the album's late '70s English setting, the music is much more ambiguous. Somewhat referencing the post-punk meets pop of late '70s England, the chords don't so much snap as they flow, constantly pulsating and changing, but rarely having an identifiable start or stop. At times, the music wraps together so thickly that entire songs seem to be only one note that grows and dwindles, undulating in color and shape.
But, fascinatingly, while Fucked Up had progressed light years in sound from their earliest releases, to some degree, they've returned to their earliest format in song structure. While later-day Fucked Up releases like ChemCom and 2010's Year of the Ox featured long, multi-part epics that became completely different songs by their end, the songs on David are, for the most part, short and simple. While the album itself is massive once all the songs are arranged together, the songs individually seem affixed to the classic pop formula. Many of the songs start out with a refrain that gradually grows in intensity until the end, repeating the same exhibition while subtly coloring in differences that are unconsciously apparent.
Frontman Damian Abraham is used both to his strongest and most disconcerting effect to date. While publications almost always point out that Abraham is a big guy, or that he's bald with a beard, or that he growls a lot, or that he cuts himself, few mention his gift as a lyricist. He echoes the early viciousness and snottiness of classic punk: "We need a Peter, we got a Paul, at least Judas had some balls." But, he's also able to write in an almost biblical format (that is also deft for its play on words) when the album's narrator steps into the play itself: "I couldn't watch quietly and I won't pretend to understand. / I don't feign piety, but why would a God ever want to be...?"
Abraham's voice is also at its most contrasting here. On ChemCom Fucked Up's sound had somewhat of a nasty bite to it. Here, the bands sound is almost smooth, à la the Smiths or the Cure. Because Abraham's voice is so gruff, it stands out more than ever against the flowing sounds, and brings to light the concept of the band in its earliest incarnation, when they wanted to be "the most dysfunctional band ever."
To be fair, as with many double-LP rock operas, the piece can seem a little long-winded. At 18 tracks, the album doesn't seem to be made for a single sitting, especially since that as tight as the songs are, they seem to blend together after a while, due to their warm tone and similar tempo. Then again, that's one point of concept albums. There's much more here than simple finger-snapping. The multiple layers are designed for repeat listens, and each quirk can be run over multiple times to discover what lies at the bottom.
In their earliest days, Fucked Up would deliberately disperse misinformation, namely about a "David Eliade" who was supposedly their mentor, while their songs were catchy by acting fairly straightforward. But, now that the band has become more transparent in their activities and goals, their music has become as amorphous as ever. In the end of the LP, the lead character may or may not resurrected himself, echoing Fucked Up's own puzzling actions. With this release, is Fucked Up killing itself off with style, or submitting itself to cataclysm to return in a greater form later on?
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