When art surprises you, it’s worth celebrating.
You might find that strange, considering that surprise seems like something we’d come in contact with often. But as we move from push-based mass media to pull-based “my” media, giving us more and more individual control over our cultural space, we have to actually choose to seek out new experiences. We become more dependent on our personal networks—the websites we read, our friends, our preferred thought leaders—that may or may not already reflect our existing likes and dislikes. In an age where procedural television rules the ratings, and where every Dr. Luke pop song seems like a slow refinement of the same tune, much of the culture we bring into our lives is designed to fulfill our expectations, not to challenge them.
But it’s one thing to just be surprised; it’s another to pull a complete 180 degree turn, to find something that you’d completely dismissed and experience it in a whole new light. You question whether you’ve changed or it’s changed. You rethink other knee-jerk reactions and snap judgments you’ve made. And you hopefully learn something about why it’s valuable to be malleable sometimes.
Two records this year have had this effect on me. The first is Destroyer’s Kaputt, which if you recall from Tuesday ranked number two on my Polaris ballot. But I can’t say it’s a full 180 in that case, because I’ve always enjoyed Dan Bejar’s New Pornographers tracks. There, he worked to integrate his quirks and quarks into a pop setting, and the results were some of the band’s most compelling songs. In contrast, most of Destroyer’s output had a sonic aimlessness that just never clicked with me. But with Kaputt, Bejar found a ridiculously compelling (and tuneful) aesthetic that finally tied the whole experience together for me.
Fucked Up, however, are a whole other story.
I respected the Toronto hardcore band. I thought its 2009 Polaris win was welcome, in so much that it demonstrated that the award was capable of celebrating something more abrasive and decidedly less palatable than previous recipients. I felt that vocalist Damian Abraham, as a smart, clever personality, was a fantastic ambassador for both the Toronto music scene and Canadian music more broadly. And the band earned some healthy goodwill with me thanks to its awesome “two bands, one stage and the history of punk” battle with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at Matador 21 last October.
I just had zero interest in the music.
In this case, I’d argue Abraham was a big part of the problem. I can probably count on one hand the number of ‘screamer’ vocalists I have in my record collection. Even when I finally started getting into punk music in my late teens, I always was biased towards melodic vocals and almost entirely zoned out or skipped anything with an excess of semi-intelligible yelling. When Alexisonfire started to become a big deal on MuchMusic when I was in university (insert ‘back when MuchMusic used to play videos’ joke here), I was one of those who wondered why they just didn’t get Dallas to sing everything.
But even musically, Fucked Up seemed amateurish, almost like a scattershot rifle version of punk music. The expansion of their sound on The Chemistry of Common Life was noble but I felt actually moved a step back from some of the mild tunefulness of Hidden World. More importantly: I didn’t hear what warranted separating Fucked Up from all the other bands playing in the same genre. Why did they deserve to be the next big thing in Canadian music? I felt like an old man: “I can’t even make out the damn words!”
I wonder if I would have given the band another chance if I didn’t have journalistic/critical reasons for doing so. Had this been three or four years ago, I might never have even listened to a single track from David Comes to Life, let alone the whole thing. Which is a really depressing thought, because I would have totally missed out on the album of the year.
That’s right. A lot can change in the next six months, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if you came here in December and found David Comes to Life topping my year-end list. I’m that head-over-heels smitten with it.
What’s changed? I knew something was amiss when I decided to give the album’s four advance singles—“The Other Shoe,” “Queen of Hearts,” “A Little Death” and “Ship of Fools”—a shot and found them instantly, stunningly memorable. There was a melodicism present, a confidence of sound and tone that I’d never heard in the band before. What’s more, even though Abraham was still growly as ever, the accompanying vocalists made things far more intertwined with the music – heck, even the basic raspy yelling was growing on me.
Taking in David Comes to Life as a whole, there’s a really strange irony at the heart of the album: the band has made its most accessible, outwardly-focused album within an obtuse, confounding concept. It’s a punk rock opera that involves five characters, British working class angst, leftist protest politics, loss and death, and all with rhyming couplets that would make Shakespeare blush. It’s ridiculous on paper, and sometimes it’s even ridiculous on the record.
But that makes it more endearing, somehow, and Abraham’s vocals actually help a great deal: they push through some of the more cringe-worthy lines and sentiments and make them enjoyable. Moreover, there’s an incredible fusion between the sentiments of the record—at various times exhilarating, passionate, heartbreaking and soulful—with the music. When the album’s penultimate song, “One More Night,” explodes in a three-guitar fury, Abraham’s desperate lyrics and voice-breaking tone explode alongside. Few records I’ve heard this year are as cohesive in coordinating their passions.
And the fact that the band ends up on the ‘punk’ side of ‘punk rock opera’ matters a great deal too. I love American Idiot all sorts of lots, but it was broad enough to end up a mainstream Broadway musical; you’d be lucky to find enough of a plot to even make a musical out of David, let alone get one that would get within a few blocks of Times’ Square. Though there are moments all over this record that reach big and broad, but there’s always something to knock them back down to earth a bit, to match its scattered British working class tone. It’s a rugged, raw take on the concept album, taking a rock music staple that’s usually overthought and overdone, and breathing—or yelling—new life into it.
I realized the other day that a lot of my favourite bands over the past several years have always played past their initial audience: acts like Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady sounded like they belonged in festivals and arenas back when they were playing bars and clubs. Maybe that’s what I love most about David Comes to Life: it’s the sound of a band that wants to make something huge, substantial, gigantic, regardless of what its background is, or what genre it works in. (It’s perhaps fitting that the band is opening for the Foo Fighters on their Canadian dates this summer.) Without losing its identity, Fucked Up have delivered an album that not only acts like it has fans in the cheap seats to reach, but offers up the melodies, the sentiments and the songs to invite them to get on-board.
And I’m so in.