[2 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
Fucked Up is one of those bands with such ambition and vision that you imagine they’re trying to up the ante with each new project. But it’s also hard to envision how the Toronto hardcore collective would follow up, much less best, its 2011 double-LP David Comes to Life, considering the postmodern, multi-perspectival punk opera was such a grandiose and bombastic gesture—and one that was universally lauded not just for the concept, but the results. Just as fans were trying to figure out what Fucked Up was going to do for an encore, apparently the band itself had trouble thinking through what its next step was going to be: According to an interview with Pitchfork, Fucked Up principals Damian Abraham and Mike Haliechuk went back and forth over what to do, with the former hoping to create another epic two-disc set, while the latter wanted to make a more standard album.
Haliechuk’s vision eventually won out on the relatively compact new effort Glass Boys, which represents a tighter, more distilled version of the give-and-take dynamics between Haliechuk’s sublime, precisely layered compositions and Abraham’s full-throated, force-of-nature vocals. But the question of what to do after David might have been less about artistic vision or musical format and more about an existential crisis of how to move on with the rest of Fucked Up’s career. Glass Boys grapples with how Abraham and Haliechuk have dealt with achieving more than they imagined they could as youngsters whose purist notions were nurtured by the hardcore community they came out of. That sense of innocence loss is apparent right from the very start on the retrospective opener “Echo Boomer”, as Abraham howls the Haliechuk-penned lyrics, “I can still be who I was meant to be / I’m still a reflection of a dream / I had when I was 15,” as if holding on ferociously to a past that’s actually slipped out of their grasp. Musically speaking, the surprisingly barebones “DET” almost plays like an homage to simpler times on the grassroots punk scene, with its lurching guitars and drummer Jonah Falco’s skipping beats stirring up a mosh pit-ready anthem.
But those precious echoes of the past turn out to be illusions on Glass Boys, just as Abraham acknowledges on “Paper the Change” that their ideals and their reality don’t always line up: “In a way, it is all that gleams / But why do we kill ourselves to end the dream?” While such self-conscious soul searching can be creatively crippling, it’s precisely Fucked Up’s second guessing over whether an early 20s version of themselves would approve of who they are now approaching their mid-thirties that actually made Glass Boys possible. By all accounts, that’s the one thing that Haliechuk and Abraham shared in common in creating Glass Boys, since they worked on the album separately, with their bandmates as their intermediaries. So if there’s a concept or unifying theme to Glass Boys, it’s that the new album serves as an autobiography of the band, a meditation by Fucked Up on how Fucked Up outgrew everything that meant so much to them at a previous time and how they’re coming to terms with how they turned out to be different from who they thought they were or were meant to be.
That kind of unflinching self-reflection makes Glass Boys a more immediate album for Fucked Up, especially coming on the heels of such a performative piece as David was. In particular, it’s fascinating listening to Abraham let loose about the compromises that were made as a result of achieving a position in the music industry that he never imagined being in—as he cuts to the chase on “Paper the House”, “The way I make my living drives me insane / It’s a 21st century irony / Where everything you hoped for in life fills you with anxiety.” Despite being couched in Greek allusions, “The Art of Patrons” offers the most searching statement of purpose for Glass Boys, articulating a sense of guilt for Fucked Up’s hard-earned success, as Abraham barks out self-doubting lines on the trade-off between art and commerce: “We traded our moral high ground so they would sing along / But is it so bad? / Is it as dark as it seems / To trade a little purity to prolong the dream?”
It goes without saying, though, that Glass Boys wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if Fucked Up was simply purity trolling itself on it. Rather, what makes it compelling is how it captures the paradoxical situation Fucked Up is in, since the only way for the questions nagging at Abraham and Haliechuk to matter is for the band to be big enough to have a stage to bring them up. So the actual 21st-century irony of Glass Boys is that the album that questions whether Fucked Up has left behind its founding principles for greater acclaim and larger audiences actually includes the group’s most approachable material yet. Indeed, it’s the more prominent melodic gestures that show how far Fucked Up’s natural development has gone in an almost punk-pop direction. It should be no surprise, for one, that “Paper the House” was the first pre-release single from Glass Boys, the kind of song you’re as likely to headbob to as headbang to with its gleaming, resonating riffs winding around the almost sing-songy cadence of Abraham’s voice at its most flexible. And “Glass Boys” has the monumental qualities that David experimented with, just condensed into one track, with all the harmonic elements cranked up a notch, especially the anthemic guitars.
So no matter how much they’re wringing their hands about their situation, Glass Boys shows a greater willingness to open up Fucked Up’s imposing sound. Most ingeniously out-of-the-box is “Led by Hand”, imagined by Abraham as a duet between J. Mascis (who appears on the track) and Bob Mould (who doesn’t), which explains why there’s an alt-rock vibe that might be an obvious next step for Fucked Up. Within its own ranks, Fucked Up explores a broader range of angles and possibilities coming out of the productive tension between Haliechuk’s more considered approach and Abraham’s combustible charisma. On the one hand, they make the most of their different philosophies as Fucked Up juxtaposes these extremes on the aptly titled “The Great Divide”, as melancholy waves of guitars and bass move like they’re a step behind some of Abraham’s most feral bellowing, until they catch up on the bashed-up refrain. On the other hand, you could argue that what appear to be polar opposites actually coexist better and blend more fluidly than ever on “Touch Stone”, with the cascading guitar melodies that ripple through it, and “Sun Glass”. With the latter, all the intense elements of Fucked Up’s sound come together and amplify one another, as a strummy acoustic guitar builds up to propulsive riffs that carry Abraham’s screaming, with his bandmates coming in behind him and tracing his vocals to draw out their catchier aspects with an all-in-it-together camaraderie.
Maybe Fucked Up isn’t going through anything on Glass Boys that most bands who’ve reached the stage they’re at do, though their mid-career crisis—like pretty much everything about this particular group—feels more fever pitched and dramatic. No matter what, Fucked Up and anyone who listens to them still have a pretty good idea of who they are and where they stand, even if the band that started out wouldn’t recognize itself on Glass Boys: As Abraham puts it best about Fucked Up, in the here and now, “We’re the same in a different time.”