[29 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Chemistry of Common Life starts on a quiet note, with a single flute playing. A word of advice: Take advantage of it. Take a deep breath. Stretch. Shake out your limbs and tell yourself to relax. Because when the band kicks in, about a minute into the record, rest assured they ain’t stopping. Toronto’s Fucked Up is on a mission with this album, and that mission is large and volatile and intricate.
As a follow-up album, The Chemistry of Common Life is contradictory in its successes. It sounds much larger than Hidden World, but also more focused. It is more brash, but also more intricate. It is intense and harsh, but never infantile or bitchy or self-righteous. These songs are almost always smart and controlled, hopeful rather than taking the easier path of cynicism.
Perhaps what keeps the band from being self-righteous on this album is the fact that they lack certainty. This isn’t a complaint. Much of The Chemistry of Common Life concerns itself with searching. In particular, spiritual searching. In an age, in the Western hemisphere, where belief and doctrine are publicized so widely, even lobbied for heavily in Washington, Fucked Up worry over where religious conviction comes from.
Clearly, they seem most interested in things Evangelical, with tracks like “Twice Born” and “Son the Father”, where they sing, “It’s hard enough being born the first, so who would ever want to be born again?” But they smartly avoid snarky criticism or self-serious judgment. Instead, the songs often reference ancient texts and old religious relics, and try and match them with something undefined in human nature, something that makes us, all of us, act in the ways we do. And it is the circular disconnect between the two, between the writings we pass down and the actions we take to honor them, and the ways in which they justify one another, that this album finds much of its volatility. It is not all theological thesis, of course. There’s plenty mention of drugs and rock music and escapism on songs like “Black Albino Bones”. But there’s a miasmic wandering in these songs, searching for answers and not finding any, but pressing on energized rather than giving in to frustrations.
But while lyrically, The Chemistry of Common Life gives us Fucked Up searching, musically the album has them finding all kinds of gems. Despite their obvious hardcore connections, though clearly they avoid fitting into any one scene, Fucked Up show us they can be just about any kind of band they want. Moody indie rockers on “Black Albino Bones”. Cinematic post-rock heroes on “Royal Swan”. Noise experimenters on “Golden Seal” and “Looking for God”. And, on hit-in-the-gut standouts like “Son the Father” and “Twice Born”, unstoppable anthem shouters. What allows them to try all these sounds and still keep the thread is the sheer amount of music played on this record. Overdubs of guitar lines are layered thick on these songs, Pink Eyes’ caustic growl is echoed out to give its grit more power. Frankly, Fucked Up should be given credit for building something this big and having it not collapse on itself. That it avoids sounding impenetrable, and in fact has enough space left in it to be inviting and bracing, is one of the great production accomplishments on a rock record this year.
But the best thing about The Chemistry of Common Life is its inertia. It builds sounds and energy and takes on players as it goes. Guest vocals from Dallas Green or Vivian Girls or Sebastian Grainger do offer more melodic counterpoints to Pink Eyes difficult bark. But they never sound placed. The extra players sound like they happened upon the band recording, got caught up in the galvanizing zeal of this songs, and had to sing along. Like the band’s energy sucked them in and made them part of this growing force.
Over the course of three Presidential debates, we’ve heard Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain argue the merits of using a scalpel versus a hatchet. The question they never ask is can a lot of scalpels act like a hatchet? In tax cuts, who knows? But in music, Fucked Up is on to the answer. The Chemistry of Common Life is made by an expansive search party of scalpels, each handled with surgical precision. And together, they make a pretty deep cut.