David Comes To Life
, June 6th, 2011 10:54
As bizarrely mundane as it seems now, when I was a kid my biggest ambition was to one day live in Canada; whilst my classmates fantasised about playing for England or becoming astronauts, my daydreams – inspired mostly by my hero at the time, the Canuck wrestling superstar Bret 'Hit Man' Hart – took place in the decidedly more down to earth settings of the Great White North. Throughout my teenage years any thoughts of repatriation disappeared along with the notion that wrestling was a real sport, but recently a torrent of awesome, inspiring music (Arcade Fire, Destroyer, Junior Boys, Owen Pallet, Constantines, Wolf Parade, Broken Social Scene et al) has got me thinking again. I mean come on: can you imagine how sweet and laid-back life must be in a country that awards one of its most prestigious music prizes to a hardcore band named Fucked Up?
And how about this: it would seem that whilst my ten-year old self was dreaming of Canada, the Toronto youngsters that would later form that very band were mirroring that fascination back towards my own homeland. New long-player David Comes To Life - the latest move in a decade-long career that has seen Fucked Up banned from MTV, sue Rolling Stone, become minor TV stars, play a mammoth 12-hour show, mastermind two all-star charity singles, release a series of singles based on the signs of the Chinese zodiac and bag the 2009 Polaris Prize for their Chemistry Of Common Life - is an ambitious and audacious take on that tired old beast: the concept album. And for some reason –a tribute, perhaps, to the original wave of punk bands that obviously inspired them - David's story is set thirty years ago in the fictional British industrial town of Byrdsdale Spa.
To try and summarize the complex plot, David (a character that has already popped up numerous times since FU's debut Hidden World) is a bored light-bulb factory worker living in Thatcher’sBritain who meets a girl called Veronica, who is revealed to be some sort of revolutionary and is subsequently killed in a failed bombing attempt on the factory. David succumbs to guilt and depression, before falling into another, more complicated relationship with the mysterious Vivian; meanwhile, the true role of Octavio – our narrator – is questioned, leading to a battle between David and Octavio from which the latter emerges victorious. David resigns himself to his fate, until the motives of both Octavio and Vivian (and their connections to Veronica's death) are revealed and David is reborn with love in his heart.
Quite what any of this has to do with England in the late 70s and early 80s is not exactly clear. My memories of that time are of a country painted grey by a leader whose people hated her, of political unrest and economic depression, of strikes and protests and riots, racism, war in the Falklands and terrorism in Northern Ireland, and whilst the band’s bludgeoning hardcore succeeds in conveying that period’s ever-present air of barely concealed anger and impending violence, the subject matter and lyrics are more like something from a Shakespeare play. Not that it's easy to tell what's actually going on; between the endless flow of rhyming couplets and singer Damian 'PinkEyes' Abraham shouting-while-gargling-sand-and-glass delivery, you really need the words (available, luckily, at the album website) in front of you to keep track of the story’s twists and turns.
As an album, David certainly works better than the last time a major punk band (we're looking at you, Green Day) attempted to pull off the rock opera concept. Aside from its length (almost a hour and 20 minutes) there is little in the way of self-indulgence, and coming from a group that think nothing of cranking out fifteen-minute singles including flutes, whistling and lengthy drum solos the back-to-basics approach is quite refreshing. That said, FU's idea of 'basic' is hardly stripped back, as evidenced by guest spots from Kurt Vile, the Vivian Girls, Jennifer Castle and Cults' MaddyFollin, or Mike Haliechuk, Josh Zucker and Ben Cook’s symphonic three-pronged guitar attack, and it's this "wall of sound" approach that is key to the album's success. Like fellow literary punks Titus Andronicus, FU know that clever lyrics mean nothing without a catchy melody; luckily, David is packed from start to finish with anthemic rock & roll tunes, shot through with a keen pop sensibility, that sound like a steroid-pumped version of Springsteen at his 70s peak.
There's only one real problem with David Comes To Life, and unfortunately it's the album’s biggest selling point that proves the biggest hurdle. Taken as intended to be heard, in a single sitting, it's downright exhausting. As if an hour-plus of Abraham's relentless bark wasn't enough, Sandy Miranda's bass rhythms and Jonah Falco's drumming rarely deviate from a typical 4/4 punk thump, and although almost every song is blessed with a killer riff that will keep popping into your head for days afterwards, 78 minutes of the same overdriven massed guitar sound could leave even the most hardcore head-banger feeling like their skull has been slammed against a brick wall. It's a problem that’s easy enough to solve, though; the story is already broken down into four, more easily digestible 'acts'.
Recently the band have stated a desire to distance themselves from the expectations and limitations associated with the punk and hardcore tags, and David Comes to Life feels like both the logical conclusion of their journey so far and the start of a new one. It also feels like an attempt to make up for years of deliberate misdirection and pissing people off for fun, and a pre-emptive olive branch for potential new listeners perhaps intimidated by the band’s prickly reputation, with an embarrassment of riches – bonus tracks, the Record Store Day release of the David's Town compilation, tie-in websites, in- jokes etc. – for fans new and old to feast upon for months to come. When it comes to prizes, the chances of Fucked Up repeating their Polaris success at the Grammys or the Brits is as unlikely as David actually coming to life and opening on Broadway, but major kudos is due for flying in the face of both fashion and the purists, for attempting something so huge and so daring, and - most importantly – for pulling it off so spectacularly.