So, David works a mundane job at a lightbulb factory. He meets anarcho-sparkplug Veronica. The two fall in love. Veronica dies, somehow. David despairs, buries himself deep in grief and self-doubt, renounces any meaning in his life. Then he meets another girl and he has to decide if he should risk possibly feeling this pain again for a new chance at love.
That’s the basic plotline behind David Comes to Life. At least I think so. That’s what I gathered from the excellent, if evasive, trailer video for the album:
So yeah, this is a concept album, and it seems to take that title very literally. This isn’t a fleshed out story at all. It is an album based very clearly on a concept, an overall construct. Within that, Fucked Up once again morph themselves, moving further away from anything you could call hardcore (save Damian Abraham’s voice). Their ambition, and ability to execute those ambitions, has always been what’s interesting about Fucked Up. As much as we want to pigeon-hole them, they turn the tables on us and make us rethink what genres are about, and what we consider pop music to be.
Because, Abraham’s growl or not, this is a pop record first and foremost, and the band delivers 18 deeply catchy tracks on David Comes to Life. They convey that moment of love surprisingly well on “Queen of Hearts,” as the guitar buzzes through with a bright expansion, and it moves from tense confusion (you get the impression David’s never felt this deeply) to Veronica’s sweet voice and the band stretching out with some churning rock heft.
The best parts of the record build like this. The moody, bending guitars of “The Other Shoe” bloom into thundering riffs and punishing drums as Abraham screams about how “the whole thing is about to fall.” Here and on intros for songs like “Remember My Name” and “A Little Death” — all of which recall the rock theatrics of the Who — Fucked Up draws us deeper into the record and its otherwise basic lost-love story.
If lyrically the album lacks a few key details, the music itself hits nearly every note dead on. The album charges forward at all times, but there are subtle tempo and mood shifts throughout. The middle of the record, with David in crisis, feels frustrated and anger-fueled. “Truth I Know” starts with the quiet melancholy of an acoustic guitar, and the tangle of guitars that follow maintain that foggy feel, but all the while the drums pick up steam and by the end Abraham unleashes his loudest howls on the record, revealing the helpless rage under David’s painful loss.
The last third of the record shifts this into something nearing hope. The guitars on “Inside a Frame” don’t bite quite as hard, even as Abraham insists, “There is no escape, that’s why they call it fate.” The heartache still lingers, but you can feel the clouds parting a bit, leading to the bubbly (well, relatively bubbly) power-pop of “The Recursive Girl.” Closer “Lights Go Up” is the band at its most sturdy and surprising, proving they can slip into mid-tempo without losing their edge. The song is a tight weave of guitar lines, a series of riffs that all reach upward. Where other songs dig into the turf, this one reaches for those titular lights. It’s also a song that, if you loop the album, circles nicely back to the haunting instrumental opener, “Let Her Rest,” revealing something cyclical about this whole love-loss-grief-hope idea.
It might seem ill-advised to put together a 78-minute concept record, but Fucked Up talk like they’ve been building to this record for years. David has come up in other songs before — “David Comes to Life,” for example, is from 2006’s Hidden World — and they have finally tried to tell his story. The most impressive part of this undertaking is how the music tells the story better than the words themselves. Still, though, you could argue the tempo shifts here are too subtle. Each song is pretty solid in its own right, but with no song over five and a half minutes, they can run together over such a huge record. Abraham’s vocals add to this effect, since his powerful growl really only has one volume and one pitch: loud and snarling. What starts as a brilliant juxtaposition to some carefully crafted pop songs can, particularly in the middle of the record, distract you from what the players are doing behind him.
For all its size, David Comes to Life holds together really well. In the end, though, it doesn’t sound quite as ambitious as their dynamic Year Of singles, and doesn’t have the bracing peaks and valleys — or brilliantly shifting structures — as 2008’s The Chemistry of Common Life. Still, we need bands like Fucked Up, bands that keep us guessing and push us to look at how we approach and talk about music. Of course, that wouldn’t matter if the band wasn’t killing it on these songs. This is the strangest pop record yet in 2011, and the hardest-rocking rock record too. So even if it is a bit too big for its own good, who cares? Go deaf listening to it anyway.