There is a tendency within rock music circles to unquestioningly applaud the creation of a concept album, a sort of goodwill that doesn’t quote seem to translate when an artist attempts a disco crossover or a duet with Fergie. 45 years on from Sgt. Pepper, the rock concept record is still considered a uniquely ambitious undertaking, which ignores the fact that, in reality, it’s a subgenre with as many conventions and clichés as any other. Construct a hero/anti-hero/both, stretch the track lengths out a couple of minutes and throw in as many spluttering, grandiose crescendos and theatrical bluster, and you’re basically there. Just ask Green Day – it’s easy.
Until now, Toronto hardcore act Fucked Up have only really had to face criticism from those tortured souls betrayed by the change in emphasis between their excellent 2006 debut Hidden World and 2008’s layered, melodic triumph The Chemistry Of Modern Life. David Comes To Life is bound to alienate that fitful bunch ever more as it is essentially the continuation of a logical progression set in motion by the last record and subsequent singles. It’s bigger, brighter and more ebullient than its predecessor, much of which is down to the addition of a third guitarist, Ben Cook, and a conscious decision to lay as many layers or guitar as possible on every track.
Fans of the previous record will find an instant kinship with the new model. Opening track ‘Let Her Rest’ kicks to life with rusty shrieking feedback playing off a lullaby-like piano melody, setting the tone for an album that actively avoids seeking a balance between melody and discomfiting tones. The following troika, ‘The Queen of Hearts,’ ‘Under My Nose’ and single ‘The Other Shoe’ are more typical, burying a by-the-number hardcore song under a flurry of reverb-soaked indie rock guitars and cherubic female vocals, provided by Cults’ Madeline Follin. In those terms, it’s not a million miles away from Andrew WK, albeit a little more highbrow.
Storywise, the record follows the mental journey of David, a lightbulb factory work from a fictional town in middle England. David falls in love with a communist revolutionary named Victoria, who graciously does her bit for plot progression by blowing herself up in a terrorist attack within the first few minutes. The bulk of the album is given over to David’s existential struggle, with interjections from Veronica (voiced by Follin) and David’s ex-girlfriend Vivian (voiced by Jennifer Castle). Even so it becomes quite impenetrable beyond the first few tracks as the earthly story gives way to the hero’s inner battle.
Where When David Comes To Life really falls down is in the fact that it doesn’t really inhabit a world of its own. The better concept records of recent times have always had clearly defined parameters: some are based on history or popular fiction, others on pure fantasy; some, like American Idiot, are based somewhere very real while others are based in purely hypothetical landscapes (Deltron 3030). With their third record, Fucked Up have transposed this entirely unlikely story to an even more unlikely location and then, beyond a few early references, seeked to abandon it entirely for the existential struggle. It’s not really coherent enough to work on either level, and the result is little more than a sonically-accomplished but otherwise cold and repetitive rock album.