I’ve actually always been pretty dubious about the “concept” album. It’s not that I mind that a band is stringing together a series of songs around a common theme (or even attempting to tell some kind of specific story with a bunch of songs); it’s that I object to being told there is some underlying concept to an album, especially before I listen to it. You see, I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent bloke and when I’m listening to an album and a story starts to emerge from the songs, I like to pat myself on the back for getting it. It’s like a little reward for listening to an album enough times to feel like I know it on a deeper level.
Being informed of a concept album’s conceptitude doesn’t ruin it for me – in some cases, being told an album is a concept album doesn’t even always convince me that it is one. After deciding that Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was a Great Fucking Album, I read on the ol’ interwub that it was a concept album. In my GFA write-up, I mentioned that the alleged concept didn’t hold much water for me (that “concept” can basically be summed up like so: “A young person is tired of his parents’ bullshit so he goes out into the world in search of adventure and finds more bullshit. Perhaps he understands his parents better and perhaps he just does a lot of drugs and records a trippy instrumental track at the end of a seminal hardcore/punk/awesome album”). There are common themes running through Zen Arcade for sure and the album is a richer experience for it. But knowing – or believing, I guess – that it’s a concept album neither adds to nor subtracts from my enjoyment of it (and if you haven’t heard Zen Arcade, it better be in your headphones by the time you get done reading this or… well, I probably won’t do anything to you. But it’s a great goddamn album).
Which brings us now to David Comes to Life, the new album by Canadian hardcore/etc. outfit (how many of those do you reckon there are?) Fucked Up (to answer my own question: based on the one Fucked Up album I’ve listened to, they really only need the one hardcore band). I’ve heard it described as a concept album and, less helpfully, as a “rock opera.” If telling me an album is a concept album causes me some trepidation, telling me it’s a “rock opera” makes me wanted to handle it with long robotic arms from behind some kind of soundproof glass. Because the phrase “rock opera” implies an almost certainly wanton degree of pretension. And, though I enjoy it, David Comes to Life is a pretty pretentious record.
It attempts to tell the story of a dude named David who falls in love with a girl, the girl dies, and then he kinda goes nuts (Pitchfork’s review of David Comes to Life states that David and his girl “conspire to build a bomb together” but that’s nowhere in the lyrics that are in front of me). He ends up fighting his narrator, a handy stand-in for God (who later seems to feel ashamed for what he’s put David through), and the whole thing ends (spoiler alert) by David experiencing something akin to a resurrection “with love in his heart,” according to the extensive liner notes. Clearly a concept album, nothing particularly operatic about it that I can see.
But what I can hear is the kind of awesome, cathartic, melodic hardcore music that makes Zen Arcade such essential listening combined with the Last Call, Bar Band, Really Really Really Big Decision Blues guitar riffage of the Hold Steady’s also essential concept album, Separation Sunday. So if you’re tempted to try to sell a friend on David Comes to Life by calling it a concept album or “rock opera,” maybe you should consider describe it as a totally kickass rock record instead. Because who doesn’t like those?
Of course, the throat shredding vocals of singer/lyricist Pink Eyes (I know the name seems funny; they name people using the metric system in Canada) will not endear this album to everyone, but as a fan of 1980s hardcore, I have no problem with a guy shouting his nuts off, as long as the song is awesome. And there are plenty of awesome songs on David Comes to Life that don’t require a lit professor’s understanding of the album’s plot. In fact, the first three real songs (I don’t count opener “Let Her Rest” because it’s an instrumental overture-type thing that I find myself skipping to get to the uptempo stuff) are blissfully aggressive, surprisingly melodic anthems. And if the story really is gonna have a moral, it’s sounded on “Under My Nose” when Pink Eyes howls, “It’s all been worth it.” It takes this David dude the whole fucking album to figure out that all the pain and bullshit you put up with in life is worth it if you have true love. Does that sound trite? Not on David Comes to Life.
I know I’ve been alluding to Finnegans Wake with some frequency lately, but that really just means that book accomplished its considerable aim, which was (at least in part) to create a modern myth for the continued rise and fall of humankind. The more I listen to David Comes to Life, the more I see an analogy between the album and James Joyce’s masterpiece. Both are a bit daunting, at least at first, both have shifting identities and narrative voices (both female characters in David Comes to Life have the same initials and there’s a sort of Fight Club-y dichotomy between David and Octavio, the narrator. In fact, their relationship reminds me of that of Joyce’s Shem and Shaun) that shed new perspectives on the same events, and both operate in a cyclical manner – Finnegans Wake ends in the middle of the same sentence that opens it and David Comes to Life ends with the “Lights Up,” wherein David is reborn and eager to “do it all again.”
But – and here’s where the Pitchfork review pretty much nailed it (hey, I give credit where it’s due) – those are thoughts you can have or not have upon your own nth trip through David Comes to Life. The first one or two times, you can just crank this fucker up and let the sonic ferocity get all up in you like Boston’s humidity in the summer. Like the best music of their forebears (Minor Threat, Black Flag, the aforementioned Hüsker Dü), Fucked Up’s best moments on David Comes to Life are immediately, viscerally pleasurable, especially for people in need of instant violent catharsis.
I have no way to end this post, so I’m going to sign off by saying that Instant Violent Catharsis is the name of my Fucked Up cover band.