Sun rises above the factory but the rays don’t make it to the street. Through the gates come the employees, beaten down and dragging their feet. A group of lefties hand out pamphlets to the workers coming in. For two people on the pavement life will never be the same again. When she placed it in his hand, people must have seen the sparks. Neither understands what just happened to their hearts.
That’s the opening line of “Queen of Hearts,” the first song (besides a musical overture) on Montreal hardcore band Fucked Up’s third album, David Comes To Life. The album is a rock opera about a factory worker named David who falls in love with a leftist activist named Veronica who gets killed by a bomb, and…uh…there’s a dude named Octavio…and…OK, so the story is hard to follow, but then again Tommy didn’t make any sense, either, and that didn’’t stop it from being an amazing album. Whatever the actual narrative of the story is meant to be, what gets translated across the album’s 18 songs and 68 minutes is a tale of love, loss, despair, and mourning. It’s an album of emotional intensity that is my favorite album of the year, and an album that has resonated with me more than anything in a long, long time.
David Comes To Life is by no means a perfect album. It drags in the middle, there are some clunky couplets, and the songs aren’t as consistently great as on their last album, 2008’s The Chemistry of Modern Life. Hardcore fans will no doubt be disappointed by David Comes To Life‘s more rock-oriented direction. The songs are slower, more melodic, and there are even a few ballads. It sounds like a punk band covering a classic rock band–“Running On Nothing” could be a Bruce Springsteen song. I saw them open for Trash Talk, and Trash Talk blew them away from a punk perspective. Fucked Up lack the ferocity, anger, and violence of hardcore. In its place, they have emotional complexity and intensity, which makes their music much more interesting and enduring than your average thrash band. It’s easy to write a song about why people suck or how the system sucks. It’s much, much harder to write a song that deals with the aftermath of losing a loved one, and pondering whether it would have been better to have lived a life of solitude rather than loved and lost.
As always with Fucked Up, singer David “Pink Eyes” Abraham is an acquired taste, and your appreciation for his abrasive scream will dictate whether you can listen to David Comes To Life. He doesn’t sing, he yells, and his voice sounds like he’s been gargling glass. I grew up on hardcore, so I love his voice, but it turns a lot of people off. My wife won’t let me play this around her, and I have friends who have told me that they’d like the band if they had a different singer. I can’t help but think that Abraham is the prime reason why David Comes to Life has sold less than 20,000 copies since its release in June.
While I would like to see these songs recorded with someone who has a better singing voice, Abraham makes Fucked Up and the album his. He takes the anger and frustration that makes a good hardcore singer and channels it to real emotion. When he barks “Hello, my name is David, your name is Veronica, let’s be together, let’s fall in love,” there’s a joy that that has an audible sense of despair underneath it. Likewise his scream of “It’s all been worth it!” acknowledges that the drudgery of his life has been validated by his love for Veronica. Anyone who has found love after a series of setbacks and disappointments can relate to this.
“The Other Shoe,” with its chorus of “We’re dying on the inside,” is so heartbreaking that it’s hard to listen to. “It can’t be comfortable when the whole thing’s about to fall,” screams Abraham, and although he’s singing about the death of Veronica, he captures the fragility of love.
Abraham’s scream is similar to Bob Mould’s hoarse yells on Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. That album, like David Comes To Life, used the vernacular of hardcore punk to tell an emotionally complex story about a young person escaping a broken home to find himself. The power of Hüsker Dü was in their combination of punk ferocity with sixties melodies, the sweet and sour in one package. Fucked Up are continuing in that tradition.
The production is amazing. David Comes to Life is a wall of sound, with textured guitars, melodies hidden in a squall of noise, and the rhythm section pounding through it all. They are good at what they do, and the music has a complexity that is miles beyond what most punk bands are capable of. This is my commute album, because it is loud enough to drown out all of noise on the bus. If I end up losing my hearing, David Comes To Life will be at least partially to blame.
It is hard to express or explain how much I love this album. I have listened to some part of it daily for the past six months. For me, David Comes To Life is an invigorating experience. It has reconnected me to the energy and passion that made me fall in love with punk music 24 years ago, but translated it into something that makes sense to me as a 36 year old. It is a great rock album, but it is also has something to say about the human experience. And it makes you want to jump up and down like a maniac. It’s the kind of music that makes me love music in the first place, and will forever have a place among my favorite albums of all time.