If you’re going to call your band Fucked Up, you’d best earn the name. If you’ve ever seen Fucked Up’s live show, in which the not-tiny frontman Damien Abraham aka Pink Eyes typically strips down, jumps into the crowd and destroys things on stage, then that might be reason enough to justify the name. What’s perhaps the scariest and most threatening thing about the band though is how legitimately brilliant they are. Behind the captivating live show, Fucked Up don’t write energetic punk rock songs that thrive solely on instrumental mastery and wild vocals. They’re one of those rare bands that actually tries to make music with an intricately designed purpose. Their first album “Hidden World” was technically concept-free, but there were commonalities and themes present across it if you paid close enough attention. 2008’s “The Chemistry of Common Life” was thematically strident in its presentation of songs about the mysteries of birth and death as well as the origins of life and re-birth. As if that wasn’t already somewhat impressive, the band has also been steadily releasing 12″ singles as part of their “Zodiac” series, which started in 2006 and has continued at a rate of about 1 per year. Naturally, everything in the Zodiac series deals with whatever animal is up on the Zodiac chart for that particular year the song will be released. Where things really start to get heavy though is this past year, in which Fucked Up have been intensely working on their very own punk rock opera. A story was written, surrounding the character known as David, a man that has been the subject of a couple Fucked Up songs in the past. Leading up to the actual album though, this year’s Record Store Day saw the release of “David’s Town”, a “compilation” record that features a collection of fictional bands from David’s fictional hometown of Byrdesdale Spa, UK. The style of music was decidedly Britpop, though the boys in Fucked Up put it all together and had a series of guests come in to handle vocals which included Danko Jones, Ben Cook, Cloud Nothings and A.C. Newman. The lengths this band has gone to in an effort to make immensely smart and effective punk rock while also providing completely extraneous elements that appear to be more about fun than function, now THAT is fucked up. Give a close listen to the finally finished, 78-minute full concept that is “David Comes to Life”, and you’ll agree with that sentiment completely.
The story behind “David Comes to Life” isn’t 100% clear, but that seems to be the way that Fucked Up intended it. Spread out across four parts and 18 total tracks, we meet David Eliade, a worker at a light bulb factory in the UK who appears to be unhappy with his life. One day he meets Veronica, an outspoken rebel and Communist, and falls in love with her. Via her committment to her cause though, she winds up getting killed in a terrorist bombing, which crushes David emotionally. While he wallows in misery, he learns details surrounding Veronica’s death might not be as clear-cut as they first appeared. It all leads to the thrilling conclusion in which David finally learns the truth and becomes emotionally unburdened. That’s the broad view of the story, neglecting the many fine details that are layered across the entire record but are not always easily understood. There’s a whole thing about the narrator of the story telling one version of what happened vs. David’s version of what happened vs. David’s ex-girlfriend Vivian’s version of what happened, so if it makes total sense to you consider yourself lucky. Pink Eyes’ rough and tumble vocal style doesn’t help with translation much either, and you’re best off following along with a lyrics sheet rather than trying to hear every word that’s being sung. What also is a story without dialogue from other characters, which is why Cults’ Madeline Follin and singer/songwriter Jennifer Castle both lend their vocal talents to characters like Veronica and Vivian. That variation in perspective and singers is actually of great benefit on a record like this, helping to provide something a little smoother and more emotionally strident next to Pink Eyes’ attack dog method. Despite his “one note” style, Pink Eyes sounds better and more vital on this record than he ever has before, which at the very least says something about personal growth and an ability to adjust should the need arise.
The real challenges a record like “David Comes to Life” provide are more those of patience and virtue than anything else. Though divided into parts, the record as a whole is intended to be digested in a singular sitting. Translation: to properly listen to this album is to carve over an hour out of your day to focus on it. With all of its energy and intense moments, it’s a really thrilling 78 minutes and one that deserves to be heard straight through as often as you can. But should you need to break the record down to the bare essentials, those moments that will get you off the quickest because there’s only so much time, there are a few notable highlights to keep an ear out for. “Queen of Hearts” surges to life like a sharper, racing punk rock take on a Bruce Springsteen song. Titus Andronicus had something similar going with last year’s “The Monitor”, but that record doesn’t have quite the wall of guitars and visceral vocals this does. The hook is dynamic and effortlessly catchy, and Follin shines in her singular verse matched against your typical Pink Eyes throaty yell. A mere couple tracks later, “Turn the Season” is dark and powerful in the best sort of way, an emotional sea change that provides a strong pathway into the next chapter of the storyline. “Ship of Fools” is a fist-pumping anthem that featured a sharp mid-track guitar solo that helps motivate it to another level. The head-bobbing rhythm of “The Recursive Girl” makes it one of the more genuinely fun moments on the record, and the guitars are also scaled back just a tiny bit to give the melody just a little more room to breathe. By the time the final cut “Lights Go Up” crawls out with a backing vocal assist from Kurt Vile, there’s a brightness and celebratory air happening. Pink Eyes’ scream has turned from one of desperation, frustration and pain into something vital and life affirming. It’s not only a triumph for the main character of David, but also the band, having just conquered a mountain of a record. Hell, if you listen to the whole thing from start to finish you’ll feel that same sense of relief as the guitars slowly fade away into a single tone that beeps almost like a hospital heart monitor, slowly and steadily until it finally stops cold when the album does.
When you make a heavy concept record like “David Comes to Life”, you run a huge risk of having everything turn out disastrous. The Decemberists seemed to learn their lesson after putting out “The Hazards of Love” to mixed reviews, though many of the complaints were more about their constantly increasing rate of pretension rather than the legitimate quality of the music. One could argue that punk rock is a much more ideal format for the rock opera, given its expedient and noisy nature, we’re less inclined to care about hearing something truly innovative making it that much more of a surprise when we do. Green Day worked that angle to massive success with their album “American Idiot”, even if they faltered significantly with its equally conceived follow-up “21st Century Breakdown”. For Fucked Up, “David Comes to Life” represents the culmination of years of hard work and development, and thankfully it appears to be entirely worth it. The sheer steps from conception through execution have been nothing short of smart, and the songs are both effortlessly catchy and raw while simultaneously having to deal with the heavy story content required. “Tommy”. “Zen Arcade”. “Double Nickels on the Dime”. These are some of the big and legendary records “David Comes ot Life” has to match up with, and in effect, it has. Punk rock album of the year contenders, meet your frontrunner.