In so many ways, Fucked Up is all about theatrics. From the eye-catching, provocative band name and band members’ stage names, to lead singer Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham’s larger-than-life stage presence, to the dense lyrics and hardcore punk-inspired musical mess, the Toronto seven-piece demands attention and does so with dramatic aplomb. Despite dozens of 7″s, collaborations, singles, and splits, this is only the band’s third official LP, but it takes the drama and amps it up to an insane extreme: David Comes to Life is a four-act narrative album that encompasses a handful of esoteric characters dealing with the troubles and joys of love, all in thunder-charged guitar clangor.
Eighteen songs come together here, in total just about 80 minutes of music, composed with just as much lyrical and musical fragility and finesse as there is ham-fisted, aggressive, raw power. From the honking calliope instrumental opening track, “Let Her Rest”, onwards, there’s a sense of playful wonder leaping about. The track builds a gleeful fog of glittering guitars, enveloping the listener as a welcome to the album’s world. And then, just as the fog lifts, a clanging guitar lick opens things back up. The rhythm comes together on “Queen of Hearts”, and the three guitarists charge head first, Pink Eyes exclaiming that “two people will never be the same again.” This remains a constant theme, the negative and positive aspects of love united in the fact that they are utterly important, utterly life-changing.
The narrative at the core of the album, if followed through to its intensest specificity, upholds that creed by having David, a depressed office worker, go through the tortures of love and eventually (possibly) kill his beloved. That said, no single song depends necessarily on the past one to carry weight. Perhaps it has to do with Pink Eyes’ furious, enraged animal shout-singing, but more likely it’s just the sheer fact that these are fun, approachable, well-wrought rock songs. So, when I say that the narrative slips out of attention or cohesion (which happens somewhere between regularly and frequently), it doesn’t mean that the album is failing. Instead, the other half (the other equally impressive half) is dominating the record. This is definitely the case on “The Other Shoe”, in which lilting female backing vocals (courtesy of Castlemusic’s Jennifer Castle) and clashing guitars (from Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuk, Josh “Concentration Camp” Zucker, and Ben “Young Governor” Cook) churn out a dance-punk number that survives without any knowledge of concept or themes.
But if specific narrative isn’t as prolific as the concept would suggest, direct, active themes are. “He’s been hurt, but he will heal,” Pink Eyes growls on “Turn the Season”, as soaring guitar lines arc overhead. The chorus for “Running on Nothing” pummels itself out like an intensely angry Hold Steady song, and the verses’ lyrics about falling flower petals drip with bleak sadness. At the darker moments, Pink Eyes’ incredibly direct, intrinsically hardcore delivery can clash with the decidedly un-hardcore direction the music and lyrics move in. At worst, then, the characters on the rough end of things can lose some sympathy, occasionally leaving their actions and feelings obstinate or disappointing.
The core problem there, then, is that complaining about Pink Eyes’ delivery is complaining about Fucked Up. Abraham stands front and center for a reason, and his manic, grunting howls are essential to the band’s identity. So the fault then can be said to be the insistence upon characters, on a narrative. However, this would deny the moments of both genuine joy and sorrow provided by that very same tool.
But more than any theoretical narrative or concept, this is a rock album at heart, and it certainly does rock. The stuttered chords and rollicking guitar solos of “Remember My Name” kick with a serious boot, and the insistent, crushing bass of Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda on “Serve Me Right” pack in a condensed wallop. “Truth I Know” opens with an acoustic progression before swinging into a full-fledged indie ballad, while passages of “Life in Paper” sound like a hardcore band’s take on a post-rock song.
In the end, their little genre hops bring that much more focus to the music, which truly deserves it. Fucked Up captures the best of bar rock’s genial excitement, the intensity of hardcore, and the willingness to experiment of indie rock. The missteps of narrative are easily paved over by the energy, power, and fun of the music. As such, rather than feeling constrained or overwrought, this is a concept album where you can forget the concept for a while and just dive right in.