Published on September 16th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan0
Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World
A decade after You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, Death From Above 1979 are back with a new album that shows they’ve still got it.
Simply because of what this album’s existence seems to represent to fans of this band, we can’t even begin to discuss how it sounds until we consider what it means. This album means that DFA are about to do one of two things: 1) satiate a long-baited hunger for a second album with a quality release, or 2) destroy our pristine image of them by daring to blemish nostalgia with mediocrity. For me, it’s the first. I will shelve this record adjacent to ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ without the slightest wince at their sleeves pressing together, enhancing each others’ circular rings of wear. Here’s why: Sebastien still drums like a silverback on ephedrine with a steel pipe in each hand, Jesse’s bass still defies the parameters of what that instrument even means within the genre of rock, and it still sounds like he’s playing it by thrusting it against an electric fence with his pelvis.
The record’s release is also a reminder that creating a seminal debut album actually has a tremendous downside for a band. Excuse me while I feel sorry for rock stars for a second. Both parties involved have essentially admitted that though they were both reluctant to ever reunite, they were forced to by their inability to escape being compared to their duo-dom. Being DFA allows them both to control the path of their careers in a way they couldn’t on their own — they’ll play better venues, get more attention, have more chances to win over new fans, and all this will mean more freedom for both of them as musicians as long as they’re fettered to the name that unites them. But working under that name means being forced into the dichotomy of satiate or destroy mentioned earlier. Some fans will feel fed, others tainted, and that’s the price of the admiration we heap upon great, young bands.
But anyone feeling like something’s been squandered here must not be listening to the same record I’m hearing. ‘The Physical World’ is a great compliment to ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’. It retains the thunder without merely recycling it, as it could’ve done (a la AC/DC or Cypress Hill) to run no risk of betraying their signature sound. But it keeps the past in firm focus too, sounding unmistakably like DFA, even during some brief forays into dad-rock, synth, and (gasp) balladry.
Apart from the occasional keyboard part all-but-buried in the mix, on most tracks it’s the same arrangement we’ve always known. The drums rattle through breakneck paces with tremendous fills, and the bass hammers out that style and sound that is distinctly Jesse’s, with his great ear for riffs and his ability to get sounds out of the instrument that no one else has before. You know when you’re hearing Jesse’s bass, like you know when you’re hearing Lemmy’s, or Les’s, or Geddy’s, and it’s good to hear it again. And Sebastien’s vocals have that same pained, panicked urgency as always. His voice allows him to get away with the shoddiest of lyric lines and still sound like he means it. “Cuz I want it all / I can’t get enough,” he sings on ‘Trainwreck 1979,’ and those words would be pretty inane if he didn’t sound so earnest.
‘Right On, Frankenstein!’ is the track that makes this record. It’s as good, catchy, heavy and sweaty as anything from ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’, and it’s got a groove that takes all the “will they blow it?” anticipation and destroys it utterly. This is for real. This is gonna look and sound superb when played by two people live. These guys are not “back”, they just still are.
Ten years has been plenty of time to write some great songs, and this is mainly why ‘The Physical World’ steps away from DFA’s debut album’s style here and there. There are a few songs like ‘Cheap Talk’ and ‘Crystal Ball’ that sound so much like the first record that they could be old outtakes, except that they’re both too good to have been left off of any album. Other numbers do sound like a newer, slightly more (deep breath) sophisticated DFA, putting a little more emphasis on the songwriting and adding a few minor touches from outside their sparse instrumental arrangement. The lyrics also seem more intricate, telling stories and rendering images, unlike most of the songs on ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’ where the lyrics to many of the songs take a fifty-words-or-less approach and could only rattle the cages of the prudish.
‘Virgins’ manages to pack all the acne and excellence of badass adolescence into a single three-minute ode to skateboarding, hair holding, graffiti, and loss. ‘Always On’ points a shotgun at the head of our social media sickness, suggesting to us that if Kurt Cobain were alive to see how we live now, he’d kill himself again. These songs have a distinctly political side when they’re not nostalgic. The title track hammers home the agony of living up to impossible expectations in an age of pure appetite. “Can I say something that might sound wrong? Maybe we’ve been free too long,” sounds like a plea for structure and standards in a world adrift in random electronic experiences. “Point out your heroes / Click and they die,” might be reminding us all what we do to celebrities (hey! like DFA themselves!) when we deify them to heights they never dreamed of and then, soon after, start to feel like they owe us. Maybe this is why Sebastien’s voice takes on a distinct sneer on this number, and why he and Jesse don’t care too much that the music gets into some downright King Crimsonesque indulgence that belies their legacy of stripped-down simplicity.
‘White Is Red’ is — I cannot lie — a power ballad (!) that would work very well for Bon Jovi or Aerosmith. It’s exactly the kind of thing that could make purists feel abandoned by their once-cooler idols. It’s a really cool song. It sounds like a younger, yet updated Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune story set to the kind of soft metal that hardcore skids would’ve hated in the eighties. If the album sounded like this all the way through, it would cost these boys nearly every fan they’ve ever earned and potentially win them ten times as many. As it is, it’s a single piece of true departure that has to make us wonder what else they’re capable of.
‘The Physical World’ has done its job. It has winked at, but averted, a legacy staining catastrophe. It shows development without trying for metamorphosis, and almost doubles the number of excellent songs that fall under this well-loved moniker.