No matter how badly I wanted to get down with what was evidently the most ambitious hardcore LP since the Fugazi frontmen laid their Gibsons to rest and faded into side-project retirement, my admiration for Fucked Up's 2008 breakthrough, The Chemistry of Common Life, remained academic. The album's triumphant pop-hardcore single, "Black Albino Bones," won me over with its mixture of surging hooks and bone-snapping guitar crunch, and the bracing acid-rock opener, "Son the Father," was also pretty hard to deny. Clearly these pissed-off Cancuks had skill, but there was an awful lot of material that I found too tedious, too difficult, or just too noisy to engage with. The way the band distended chunky punk-rock tunes over six- and seven-minute stretches and packed the resulting space with piccolos, female vocals, synths, and in most instances, something in the neighborhood of 70 or 80 guitar tracks, often resulted in overwhelmingly dense compositions that grew more familiar, but no more palatable, with multiple listens.
I felt defeated by the album, but even so, I couldn't help but nod as I read the glowing reviews. With indie rock dominated by twee and baroque stylings (the big lo-fi revival was still a year off) and punk shunted off to the Hot Topic/Warped Tour ghetto, Fucked Up seemed like perfect ambassadors, bringing something visceral to rock and something cerebral to punk, and thereby helping to fill the void left by the mid-decade dissolution of Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, and the Blood Brothers.
I suppose there's no telling whether or not that's a mantle the six members of Fucked Up are interested in, but either way, David Comes to Life might just win it for them. The album's early singles—particularly "The Other Shoe," with its uncharacteristically catchy chorus, and "Queen of Hearts," which uses Pink Eyes' scorching vocals to anthemic, even uplifting, effect—suggested that Fucked Up was moving toward accessibility. Additionally, the heavily advertised "rock opera" format seemed like a promise to keep Floydian flights of psychedelic fancy in check while upping the number of hooks and refrains.
Now finished and ready to hear, David Comes to Life is a powerful showcase for Fucked Up's surprisingly sophisticated pop sensibility, which is not to suggest that it's in any way a pop album. I have no doubt that the album will win Fucked Up a broader fanbase, but for many listeners, Pink Eyes' eye-popping screams and the band's unrelenting guitar assault will be immediate turnoffs. David Comes to Life also intimidates by sheer volume of material: Almost two hours of hardcore is a lot for one sitting.
What makes the album so much more immediately gratifying than its predecessors, then, is Fucked Up's newfound willingness to graft their ear-splitting sound to conventional pop and rock song structures, with most of the tracks on the album delivering big payoffs either by means of a torrential breakdown, as in the climax of "One More Night," or a satisfying vocal melody. All good news to a listener like me, though I suppose longtime Fucked Up fans will worry that their beloved barbarians have gone too far in civilizing themselves. It's not an unfounded fear, but David Comes to Life contains plenty of evidence that Fucked Up is still one of the strangest and most inventive guitar rock bands on the planet.
Mike Haliechuk, who performs with the band as "10,000 Marbles," is a genius when it comes to eliciting awesome sounds from his fretboard, and songs like "Life in Paper," "Ship of Fools," and "The Recursive Girl" put his delightfully skewed vision of rock history on display, locating points of intersection between crunchy Pete Townshend riffs, atonal Moore/Ranaldo outbursts, and countless other styles pulled from the guitar greats of shoegaze, hardcore, and metal. But where The Chemistry of Common Life too frequently indulged the assumption that badass guitar licks are endlessly interesting in their own right, here the band limits the number of ideas crammed into any given song and, more importantly, makes sure that the songs themselves have some kind of discernible progression. The result is a weird and confrontational band playing more joyfully and purposively than ever before.
In that respect, Fucked Up remains true to their punk roots, where the sense that the band played with conviction mattered every bit as much as the material they chose to perform. But try as Fucked Up might to imbue every one of their 18 tracks with urgency, David Comes to Life isn't always convincing—and wherever its sense of purpose strains, it can be every bit as exhausting as the band's more abrasive early work. As with any album of this length, repetition becomes a major issue by the time it rolls around to its finale. And while there's certainly some thematic and narrative arc to the album, too much of it seems concerned with alternating garden-variety disaffection with sudden moments of catharsis. Musically, the album couldn't be further removed from Green Day's blockbuster American Idiot, but the two punk operas explore similar lyrical themes: Modern life is disheartening and lonely, and in that context, romantic love is a powerful but perhaps illusory source of comfort. There's also a political element to the story, though as with Green Day and most other punk acts, the message doesn't seem to develop much beyond a romanticization of dramatic acts of protest (see also: Lou Reed's Berlin, David Bowie's Heroes). It's not that I came to David Comes to Life expecting modern literature, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect some departure from the overworked tropes of romantic rock-n'-roll lore over the course of an album as sprawling and wordy as this one. Fucked Up's protagonist is shocked and heartbroken when his lover bites the dust in the first act, but I doubt many listeners will feel that way.
One gets the sense, both when the album tears along at full throttle and when it slides into the perfunctory or the half-assed, that David Comes to Life is a rite of passage for Fucked Up more than any kind of masterwork. Big-time rock bands, the kind that are so central to the mythology of Woodstock, Rolling Stone, and the early hardcore scene, are supposed to tell stories and they're supposed to comment on the issues of their day. It's anyone's guess if Fucked Up has the ambition to fill that kind of role, or if they just decided to try it on for one album; up to this point, their career has been one defied expectation after another. Nonetheless, it's an interesting future to imagine for the band. They're a large Canadian rock group that plays densely composed and anthemic rock music, tackles political and existential themes with precious little subtlety, and clings to the now-anachronistic model of the conceptually unified rock LP. But they prefer walls of guitar to strings and keys and would rather bellow obscenities than write melancholy poetry. Could Fucked Up be evolving into a bizarro-world Arcade Fire?