The Toronto band Fucked Up plays hardcore punk rock, at least judging by its reputation and alliances. But in the past several years, they've also played 12-hour concerts, trashed MTV studios, launched a series of freewheeling 12-inch records named after the signs of the zodiac and have just now released not only an 18-song "rock opera"—a story about a boy, a girl, another girl and an unreliable narrator set in Margaret Thatcher's Britain, all called David Comes to Life—but a second, accompanying record that features imaginary bands the opera's characters might enjoy. These are not simple punk rock moves.
If you ask around or quickly search the Web for information about Fucked Up, however, you'll find plenty of references to them as a hardcore punk band. And sure, that might be where the group started with its earliest, no-frills releases, and that's where they might remain in spirit. When they play in Raleigh, our own hardcore renegades, Double Negative, will open. And, as frontman Damian Abraham, or Pink Eyes, told Pitchfork Media earlier this year, "The reason punk and hardcore stays so perfect and pure is it cuts itself off from anything that is going to corrupt it." That is, it can be what it must be. But Fucked Up has now moved beyond reworking simple hardcore or punk rock; they're part of a loose-limbed movement that's rewriting how indie rock itself sounds and what it accepts.
Almost any ambitious group that comes from a music scene or subculture with restrictive standards is going to run into the barriers of the form soon enough. It's the process that spawns new ideas and subgenres. Fucked Up met those barriers head-on, and early on, at full speed. Never mind David Comes to Life; their previous two full-lengths—the debut, Hidden World, and their first album for indie rock mainstay Matador Records, The Chemistry of Common Life—are sprawling, semiconceptual tracts that eschew punk rock brevity as much as they thumb their nose at the sounds of hardcore. Everything about LP-length Fucked Up is larger than life, from the walls of guitars to Abraham's relentless and revealing bark. Replace his punk holler with a less demanding singer—something that actually happens, momentarily, on David—and the group transforms from a genre-bounding punk outfit into an arena-size rock group. He's their hardcore anchor, the perfectly bald, boisterous, bear-like line between being Fucked Up and Foo Fighters.
On David's Town, the aforementioned imaginary-band soundtrack, Fucked Up doesn't just settle for one sound. In doing so, they indeed prove how capable they are of shifting into different styles and gathering different audiences. The record is meant as a compilation of music for the kids in David Comes to Life. Really, though, it's just Fucked Up and some friends, like members of The New Pornographers and Cloud Nothings, pretending to be 12 different bands. There are some pro forma punk-rock piss-takes that mention shillings and curry. The make-believe Brydesdale Spa FC sounds like The Jam, while Light Rain gives "Rhiannon" a not-so-subtle makeover. Das Schwache appropriately makes Teutonic industrial post-punk.
On one level, this record serves as an example of the varying kinds of music that can be produced within a scene that prizes both creativity and purity, as punk rock was initially intended. It's an example that's been made plenty of times before, but given the monocultural lamentations and defenses that can still happen when someone decides to see what lies beyond its crowd's walls, it's a point worth making again and again. See the black metal band Liturgy or mainstream risk taker Kanye West, artists who have recently riled their audience by trying something else.
It's nothing new for musicians—especially those with some semblance of underground credibility—to try and push aesthetic boundaries or fans' buttons. Fucked Up, for instance, isn't the first punk band to make a rock opera this decade, let alone ever. (Thanks to Green Day's unwavering vigilance, they have also missed their chance to be the first punk group to hit the Broadway stage.) While Fucked Up has all but left the world of punk rock behind—and if they haven't yet, these two David albums might be the group's one-way ticket out—they are now fully ensconced in the musical subculture of indie rock, whose notions of propriety and integrity have proven to be as mercurial as they were strident in the past. Thankfully, that's slowly been changing.
Whether because of that grand old information superhighway, the fallout of the file-sharing kerfuffle or just happenstance, there's been a very gradual erosion between what's "indie," and what isn't, over the last decade. Travel back in time not even 10 years ago and try telling a card-carrying indie rock fan that Bruce Springsteen and Steely Dan were influential forces in that little corner of their world, and said fan would probably scoff. These days, though, two of the bigger groups in these circles—The Hold Steady and Titus Andronicus—unabashedly kneel at the altar of The Boss. If you missed longtime lo-fi lothario Ariel Pink's squatters-rights yacht-rock on late-night television, then you might've heard about Grizzly Bear bringing Steely Dan backup singer Michael McDonald into the recording studio. Though it's becoming more difficult with each passing day to call Justin Vernon an "underground" artist, the liberal use of Auto-Tune on the first three Bon Iver releases turned some heads (and stomachs, maybe), including that of his new collaborator, Kanye West.
Indeed, in a world where a once-mopey songwriter plays basketball and writes songs with hip-hop's biggest hothead, or where long-running independent labels find their records rubbing elbows with Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts and Grammy ballots, it's only natural for stylistic and demographic bleed-over to occur across the board. After all, while boundaries might work for market research and scene integrity, artistic endeavors rarely adhere to such arbitrary lines. Joanna Newsom and Active Child have put the harp in indie rock, Destroyer and Gayngs the saxophone. Fucked Up adds Cults chirper Madeline Follin to David. They've previous collaborated with goth star Zola Jesus and released a split with Scandinavian shoegazers Serena Maneesh. They are, in effect, this era's great hardcore integrator.
That's how you end up with a rock album that's not only operatic in scope, but also in spirit. Fittingly, David's very long libretto revolves around a love story—a factory worker named David meets a leftist-leaning girl named Veronica as she hands out pamphlets outside his workplace. As you can tell by the politically tinted premise, Fucked Up will always be punk at heart. That said, this opera still focuses primarily on matters of the heart, as the girl David meets in the first song on the album dies soon thereafter. The rest of the record deals with the aftermath. The album's actual through line is hard to glean from the lyrics, especially if you're trying to decipher them through Abraham's aggressive vocals. It might take you a few listens to hear "You clamor for an outcome, a candid denouement/ The hunger for a resolution manifests the end" on "Ship of Fools."
Just trust that, along the way, there's an explosion, a trial, an ex-lover and a fourth wall-breaking narrator.
But what matters most is that Fucked Up doesn't sacrifice anything musically for the story they're trying to tell. The record's enjoyable enough as just an 18-track shit-kicker, but when you get a sense of the album's narrative drive, these coiled songs hit even harder. While David ends his journey where he began—that is, alone, working at the same factory—he's a completely changed man. And while musical moments like David Comes to Life might not be cataclysmic world-changers themselves, albums this expansive and ambitious, that willfully disregard what's punk and what's indie and what's hip and what's cool (a rock opera certainly is not), you can't help but feel that things are changing, that things are—in the best sense of the phrase—a little fucked up.