Fucked Up have been working on David Comes To Life, the follow up to 2008’s Polaris Prize winning The Chemistry Of Common Life, for years now. It came from an idea for a character, David Eliade, who the band began to develop in various singles (“David Comes To Life,” “David Christmas,” “David’s Plan”); but for the most part, they kept the larger piece at a distance—unsure, it seems, according to a short documentary/trailer for the record, of their ability to craft the lyrics and the story itself. But Fucked Up is not a band that shies away from massive undertakings. Defying easy categorization, they force themselves outside their comfort zones, pushing the boundaries of not just hardcore and punk, but rock and roll and pop. Even “ambitious” seems like too weak a word to do them justice.
“David Comes To Life is kind of the culmination of ten years of Fucked Up Learning how to be a band and be songwriters,” says drummer Jonah “Mr. Jo” Falco in the video. And, yeah, that’s exactly what it feels like. David Comes To Life is huge. It’s sprawling. It will worm its way through your ear, down your throat, burrow into the pit of your stomach where it will punch you in the gut before deciding its bored and head South so it can finally kick your ass. David Comes To Life plain straight-up rocks. You could spend days picking apart and relishing each line, riff, solo, or chord progression that comprises the monstrous wall of guitars that dominates the record courtesy of Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuck, Josh “Gulag” Zucker, and Ben “Young Governor” Cook (who joined the band in 2008); or reveling in Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham’s throaty, glass-shattering scream that’s never sounded this powerful, melodic, and even poignant; or delving into Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda’s thundering bass; or furiously tapping your fingers along with Mr. Jo’s taught, manic drumming. At a whopping 78 minutes, David Comes To Life can seem imposing, but this is a record that doesn’t try to alienate listeners with length or sound—not a single second is wasted on David Comes To Life, and the solitary, pulsating hum of feedback that opens and closes the album seems to encourage repeated listens. It’s the same message Pink Eyes delivers on the final cut, “Lights Go Up”: “I’ll see you again when our story gets retold.”
Oh yeah, that story. Here’s pretty much all you need to know: It’s the late 70s, early 80s and David Eliade is stuck at a mindless job at a light bulb factory in the fictional British town of Byrdesdale Spa. He meets this activist, Veronica Boisson, they fall in love, but at the end of Act I, she dies in a mysterious explosion (not even the members of Fucked Up know exactly what happens – nor do they really care). David’s guilt and depression grow, and he meets another woman, Vivian Benson, who seems to know something about Veronica’s death. In the third act, the story gets really heady when we meet Octavio St. Laurent, who’s got a serious god complex and was probably involved in Veronica’s death. The show/album ends with Vivian revealing she saw Veronica’s death, Octavio sharing his own motives, David speaking one last time to Veronica, and finally redemption. Gaping plot holes and left-out information abound, but nitpicking does both the band and the album a disservice. This isn’t Fucked Up making a rock opera. This is Fucked Up using the basic tenets of the rock opera as a means of exploring both a wide array of lyrical themes, as well as a wide range of musical conventions and sounds.
Lulling the listener into a false state of security with the droning, cavernous “Intro,” Fucked Up does not miss a beat, launching into the fattest pop-punk riff this side of Warped Tour 1998. “Queen Of Hearts” is endemic of many of David Comes To Life’s best tracks, a signifier of what’s to come: This is Fucked Up at their poppiest, the guitars weaving in and out of each other, for every for every palm-muted note struck with a bottled energy, there are just as many freewheeling riffs running rampant. Hooks, vocal and instrumental, pile up on top of each other, whether it’s the anthemic cry of “We’re dying on the inside,” in “The Other Shoe,” or the suddenly enraged guitar towards the end of “Truth I Know”—the record’s most hardcore moment—as Pink Eyes barks for “Order in the court!” a moment framed by a build of thumping toms and choral “ahh”s on one end and acoustic strumming on the other.
Most impressive, though is the band’s seamless pairing of the album’s poppiest songs with the story’s most tragic moments. On “Turn The Season,” Veronica dies, but you’ve got this guitar lick that swings up and down the fretboard and Mr. Jo’s up-tempo, almost grooving drums; then later on “The Recursive Girl,” you’re confronted one of the album’s most refreshing riffs and some sparse, charming guitar picking during the verses as Vivian contemplates how her love for David will never be reciprocated. But it’s standout (and that’s saying something for this record) “A Little Death” that does this best. The whole song is shamelessly pop, but it’s when the final crescendo—growing from a circular guitar line, the return of those distant choral chants, and drums that start big and splashy but soon contract into a tight snare roll—finally bursts and all you want to do is yell along “I’m better off, it was too much, / A little death, from every touch. / I had to run, I had to leave, / I’m dead inside, but I can’t breathe,” not in a mopey, alone-together sort of way, but in ecstatic celebration.
For all its accessibility, however, David Comes To Life is a dark record, primarily dealing with self-hatred, depression, guilt, futility, anger, love and loss, death and rebirth. What can get lost in Pink Eyes’ periodically unintelligible vocals are lines like “Better to be born blind than see and then lose sight, / Better a desolate peace than to fight with your memories” (“Remember My Name”), or “There is no escape, that’s why they call it fate” (“Inside A Frame”). For good measure, some black humor is thrown in like “Swans mate for life or so I’ve heard, / which is fitting, because / that shit’s for the birds” (“Running On Nothing”). And though the lyrics aren’t always discernible, Pink Eyes gives the vocal performance of his career—he never fully changes his voice, but the emotional nuances he adds to signify a different character or a certain feeling speak volumes—just listen to the differences between the voice-straining confessional, “I Was There,” and the comparatively tame, melodic soliloquy of “Inside A Frame.”
Like the best pop music, David Comes To Life is fraught with tension. It’s the push and pull between Pink Eyes’ snarl and these comparatively clean guitar parts, or the way the band forces a lonesome ballad like “Life On Paper” to conform to their way of making music; or the juxtaposition of emphatically pop melodies and overtly nihilistic lyrics. The album’s cornerstone is “Serve Me Right,” which comes at the point where David’s self-loathing and depression have reached their apex. With a revving-chainsaw of a guitar and Pink Eyes pushing his voice, inflected with abject, inconsolable agony, way past what seems humanly possible, “Serve Me Right” encapsulates everything that Fucked Up are capable of accomplishing. For all its internal tension, David Comes To Life is a liberating album that represents a giant step forward in every genre that it tackles and incorporates. And it achieves this in its blatant disregard for all of them. This is not a hardcore band or a punk band or a pop band or a rock band; this is a band concerned with discovering what music is capable of achieving by taking a quick glance back, and a giant leap forward. Fucked Up actively refuse any sort of definition, and David Comes To Life proves that they’re more than capable of shouldering that burden—and from where I’m standing, that’s pretty fucking punk rock.