Forget about thinking of Fucked Up’s 18-track, 80-minute rock opera epic David Comes to Life as a post-millennial Tommy, because the wildly inventive concept album is, as frontman Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham himself suggests, more along the lines of a pomo indie-punk Rashomon. A magnus opus told from multiple perspectives by unreliable narrators with dubious motives, the Toronto musical collective’s absurdly ambitious effort is part unabashed love story, part whodunit mystery, part psychothriller, part existentialist exploration, part lefty agit-prop. Musically speaking, David Comes to Life is just as rich, layered, and complex as its narrative, with Fucked Up somehow developing greater proficiency and adding more eclectic elements to its guitar-driven aesthetic without losing any of the aggro intensity that got the group noticed to begin with. Indeed, the bold, sprawling imagination that goes into David‘s storyline is part and parcel of the daring adventurousness that has spurred Fucked Up to offend sensibilities and defy simple labels all along, blurring arbitrary lines between styles and genres.
With more possibilities of how to approach it than a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, what David Comes to Life reveals is just how multidimensional Fucked Up is. You can listen to David straight through and immerse yourself in the total experience, trying to work your way through everything that’s going on. Or you can cherry-pick tracks off it if the whole production is too much for you, because many of the songs bubble over with ringing riffs, Pink Eyes’ anthemic rallying cries, and a sense of internal development that’s complete in and of itself. Or you can break Fucked Up’s sound down to its most basic parts and play trainspotting with the band’s three-guitar attack to identify all the diverse influences that go into its repertoire, be it Hüsker Dü’s hardcore experimentation or Superchunk’s hyperactive punk-pop or the Fall’s angular slice-and-dice riffs.
Even though this album is, needless to say, no exercise in easy listening, Fucked Up actually gets you to put in the effort to make sense of David. If you want an idea of what you’re getting yourself into, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of David: Set in a made-up English industrial town during the late 1970s, the plot centers around David (or so we think), a drone working in a lightbulb plant living out as mundane and unfulfilled an existence as that description appears, until he finds a kindred spirit in bleeding-heart agitator Veronica. But, alas, their fairy-tale love story is short-lived — say, about three or four tracks — after Veronica is killed in a mysterious bombing at the factory. David, as a result, spirals into angry recriminations, all-consuming guilt, and self-pity over his lot in life, just when a few shady characters enter his life: a suspicious new love interest Vivian and his grandiose antagonist Octavio, who’s later revealed to be the tale’s narrator, though he’s neither disinterested nor objective. Without writing a Master’s thesis on the dramaturgical structure of David or theorizing whether there’s some kind of Brechtian alienation effect going on, suffice it to say that Pink Eyes, as the meta-narrator lyricist, has become a storyteller on par with indie rock’s finest, which places Fucked Up with the Hold Steady and Titus Andronicus in the current canon of concept-driven underground acts.
Ultimately, though, it’s the music that best articulates what David is all about, transforming what seems like a fascinating, if unwieldy, concept into an intricate, laser-focused composition made by a band with a knack for building up the drama and an intuitive sense of developing the narrative. Functioning like the album’s Greek chorus, Fucked Up’s trio of guitarists, spearheaded by bandleader Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuk, guides you through David‘s four acts and unlocks the story in ways that hermeneutic mindtricks might not be able to. Starting with 10,000 Marbles’ opening instrumental number “Let Her Rest” as a prelude that’s like the calm before the storm, Fucked Up works its way into the plot, with (relatively) lighter, giddier anthems that tell of the blossoming romance (“Queen of Hearts” and “Under My Nose”) in the first act. Only after tragedy befalls David and Veronica does the album pick up the depth and weight that carries them through the rising action of the middle section, when the songs get heavier and more intense, especially on Octavio’s sinister soliloquy “Truth I Know” and the album’s apex, “Life in Paper”, with its cascading sheets of metallic guitars. But it’s the way David wraps up that’ll knock your socks off: Without giving away any spoilers, Fucked Up ties up loose ends by sounding, of all things, like an indie-pop band, conveying the sense that the meaning of the story has less to do about railing against the forces that be than it is about seeking out a resolution you can live with.
So while Fucked Up has been known for molding its unrelenting noise into something that possesses nuance and subtlety no matter how loud and pummeling it is, the group pulls off this trick more deftly than ever. Best case in point is how 10,000 Marbles and company split the difference between Hüsker Dü’s overdriven guitar workouts and Sugar’s hyped-up melodies on “I Was There”, aided and abetted by Pink Eyes’ Bob Mould-esque growl. But more compelling is how Fucked Up plays with contrast to elicit a wider range of emotional cues on David. What stands out the most are those moments when Fucked Up lets the listener come up for air, if only to propel the drama and tension afterwards, like on the suite of tracks between the first two acts: Giving Pink Eyes some space to reflect on David’s desperate response to Veronica’s fate on “Turn the Season” and “Running for Nothing”, Fucked Up comes out of that turning point with one of David‘s most incendiary tracks, “Remember My Name”. On the latter, a short, almost contemplative instrumental interlude ramps up into a blistering passage with the rhythms hitting harder and the vocals right in your face, as Pink Eyes expounds on whether ’tis better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all — or not (“The only love that will never die is the love that you always deny”). On the whole, Fucked Up proves you don’t have to sacrifice any vigor and energy by changing the pace and tone for the sake of the story.
But even though it’s hard not to want to experience all of David as a single, complete piece, what’s remarkable about the songs is that so many of them can stand on their own just fine, with enough air-guitar worthy riffs and chant-along rants that remain powerful no matter how to listen to them. Just check out some of the pre-release singles from the album, particularly “The Other Shoe”, with its boy-girl back-and-forth between Pink Eyes and Jennifer Castle pushed to the fore, as straightforward guitars drive the tune from the background. So maybe the chorus of “We’re dying on the inside” speaks specifically to David and Veronica’s relationship, but, at the same time, it makes for a pretty good statement of punk existentialism, as do the track’s fatalistic lyrics. Same goes for the volatile punch-out “A Little Death”, which works just as well conveying David’s nihilistic acceptance of what’s happened to him as it does as a big picture way of dealing with grief — “Forget the things you used to love, just give up and let the memory fade,” Pink Eyes shouts, as David tries to cope with and explain away his righteous anger.
So while every song has a purpose in the larger scheme of things, they sound pretty great out of context, which goes to show how Fucked Up has learned to indulge a sweet tooth for pop. For example, “Queen of Hearts” functions, on one hand, as the crucial scene-setting piece that captures the love affair that the rest of the narrative spins out of, while it works, on the other, as a short story that could be taken as a bizarro Belle and Sebastian vignette if left to its own devices. Likewise, the Superchunky pogo-punk of “Serve Me Right” succeeds on its own terms, as do the bar-band rock of “Running on Nothing” and “A Slanted Tone”, on which Fucked Up comes off like the Hold Steady on steroids, especially when you notice Pink Eyes’ amped-up Craig Finn-like vocal phrasing. And, heck, your ears may or may not be deceiving you when you hear Pink Eyes lapse into actual singing — or at least a sing-songy cadence — and try to carry a melody towards the end of the album on the Built to Spill-styled grunge-waltz “One More Night” and the jangly power-pop closer “Lights Go Up”.
In the end, the greatest testament to David Comes to Life is how it feels like there’s more and more to it, even when you’re already on sensory overload as it is. Whether it’s new interpretations that’ll come through on repeated listens or a riff you didn’t hear earlier, you get the idea that David will unveil other aspects of itself over time, that we’re just scratching the surface with this saga and the group that made it. So maybe the real moral of David Comes to Life is that Fucked Up’s story is still in the process of being written, no matter how prolific the band already is.