Monday, September 24, 2012

Pre-Polaris: Fucked Up

Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.

Fucked Up – David Comes to Life

First impression (June 16, 2011):

I was one of the few unconvinced that this Toronto band’s 2008 album The Chemistry of Common Life was somehow a watershed moment for hardcore punk, despite the fact it won the Polaris Prize, got them signed to one of the most-respected American indie labels, and garnered attention from plenty of mainstream press and even public radio both here and in the U.S. To an aggressive genre born and ossified in the early ’80s, Fucked Up brought broad ambition, flutes, violins, female vocals and other distractions to counteract Damian Abraham’s visceral one-note growl. But on the album itself, somewhere underneath the 70 layers of guitar tracks, they forgot how to be a great punk band (which you can hear them be on the 2009 compilation Couple Tracks); Common Life was as bloated as the prog rock that punk was created to slay in the first place.

Now comes what the band claims is a rock opera. At 18 tracks and 70 minutes, Fucked Up prove once again that they don’t lack for ambition. And the first third of this album sounds like it’s paid off: the production is 10 times better than on Common Life, with the guitars roaring out of the speakers, Abraham comfortably placed in the mix instead of sounding like the guy who’s always belching loudly at the party, and songs that match fist-pumping punk energy with, well, the idea of a rock opera that The Who pioneered in the late ’60s.

Yet the album loses steam quickly after that, and not just because Abraham sounds monotonous even on a good day, and not because it’s impossible to honestly comprehend the narrative, which apparently has something to do with living in Thatcher’s England. After the initial burst of inspiration on the opening tracks, the music doesn’t function as punk, not as prog, not as pop, and certainly not as rock opera. The production—especially the guitar tones—is the only consistent strength here, and it’s curious how close the band comes to sounding like U2 at times, which surely was not what they were going for. But who knows?


--The three-guitar attack sounds utterly fantastic here, in ways this band never has before. 

--Drummer Mr. Jo whips everyone into shape and provides solid drive even when the guitarists start phoning it in.

--The production is perfect for a rock’n’roll record, sounding raw yet crisp at the same time. 

--At his best, singer Pink Eyes has developed from a monotonous growler to an inspiring howler.  

--Several tracks here capture this band at what they do best, mixing hardcore punk fury with influences ranging from The Who, The Clash, and, uh, early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Ship of Fools,” “The Other Shoe,” “Running on Nothing,” “Queen of Hearts, Under My Nose.”


--Outside of the tracks mentioned above, and despite the high energy level throughout this is terribly boring. Shouldn’t I be on the edge of my seat, pumping my fists in the air? There is very little, if any, dynamic range—which is fine for a 30-minute album, not a 70-minute one. For an album called David Comes To Life, it is remarkably moribund. And that’s not always the fault of the band—it’s the fault of the songs, and the fact that none of them has a vocal melody consisting of more than one note.

--Track 12 of 18, “Ship of Fools,” is the last time this album sounds like it has any life in it. Why plod on for another six tracks?

--Pink Eyes: he is far more effective in small doses, which is the only Fucked Up record I’ve ever enjoyed is their singles collection. I’m also inherently suspect of any singer who maintains an exaggerated emotional state over the course of an entire record.

 --As an ostensible concept album, I have no idea what’s going on.

Things I’m not supposed to think about:

This band has already won the Polaris Prize. And I know from anecdotal evidence that even people who love this band and admire this ambitious project (and who even voted for it to be on this list) can't make it all the way through this album.

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