Review Summary: Unconventional hardcore with creative wanderlust is not the shape of punk to come.Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
ked Up are poised to be the new Refused. Not since that now infamous Swedish band gave the world a glimpse at the shape of punk to come has a hardcore band received this kind of fanfare and critical support. Support for Fuc
ked Up was originally a humble group of hardcore kids but as Fuc
ked Up's style became more esoteric and concerned with artistry, so did their fanbase. As Fuc
ked Up's songs experimentally ambled along for six minutes and the lyrics became increasingly lofty, a lot of critics caught on, and all had the same reaction to the experimental meandering; Fuc
ked Up are more punk than punk. Regurgitating the same up-the-punx three chords is not enough and striving for experimentation or technicality is too contrived. Fuc
ked Up found the in-between. They are brash with their experimentation on the surface, tossing around violins, flutes, and unexpected harmonic modulations with a knowing disregard for "the rules" of punk, but they rarely step outside of the double-time drumming and power chord paradigm when it comes to the core of their music. The end result is a sound that keeps pummeling away with punk's energy and simplicity regardless of the artsy and experimental adornments that elevate their music from commonplace to divine. Succinctly, in the words of Pitchfork's Jason Crock, Fuc
ked Up play "overdriven three-chord punk" with a dose of "healthy pretention."
Whether you buy into the success of that duality or if you think it's all bullshi
t, they have a distinctive sound and are going out of their way to take musical risks and create something original. To their credit, regardless of the public response, if we're to believe the words of their singer Pink Eyes from an interview with Aversion, Fuc
ked Up themselves might think the whole idea of their genre-defying leaps and bounds to be a little ridiculous.
Originally Posted by Pink Eyes
People at the end of the day want stuff to be palatable, that can mean actually music-wise or it can also mean lyric-wise, everything. They want what they're into to seem grown-up and mature, and that unfortunately means people want something that's quiet and introspective and things like that and kind of ignore the fact for music to say something more. There's a tendency to think of all aggressive music as being some sort of '80s hair-metal revival, like a beat-down song or something like that. The fact remains that some of the most profound music is coming out of the heavy music genres.
ked Up probably do aspire to be both palatable and profound, they don't want to dull their edge in the process. They too carry some resentment for the way the typical person listens to music and demands more from them. However to ask this of the listener, Fuc
ked Up would probably have to deliver the next Shape of Punk to Come
on a musical level to satisfy both the artificial media hype as well as their own lofty aspirations. When I read Pink Eyes' claim that heavy music is producing profound music, I felt he implicated himself as a contributor to that phenomenon. Fuc
ked Up want to be the band that pushes the envelope and will be revered for years down the line. The Chemistry of Common Life
, the followup to the double LP that really put them on the map, Hidden World
, and a string of 7-inchers, is the next step in that hopeful legacy.
Much to the chagrin of bloggers looking for the "new noise," the album begins on a modally ambiguous solo flute melody that is as playful as it is foreboding that then shifts into palm-muted power chords that echo the ascending contours of the preceding flute part. The album is full of these calculated attempts at breaking down genre boundaries. The very next track "Magic Word" begins with a trebly conga line that gives the upbeat verses a funky verve. The choruses of "Days of Last" feature a pitch-shifting synthesizer accompaniment that invokes Vangelis' electronic orchestration. "Royal Swan" opens with a synthesizer emulating a ballpark organ. All of these little instrumental oddities sound like an attempt to give The Chemistry of Common Life
the same polyglot sound that made The Shape of Punk to Come
such a "revolutionary" album. The electronica breakdown after the introduction of "New Noise" feels like the forefather of Fuc
ked Up's inclusion of flutes and synths. However their integration (and in my book similar integration by Refused) is at moments contrived and others, well-integrated. They do a killer job of integrating these off-center ideas melodically and rhythmically. As aforementioned, motives in that opening flute melody are the foundation for the chord progression to follow. The congas stick around during the verses complementing the comparatively simple punk drumbeat. However, as much as Fuc
ked Up consciously wove those strands together, they are worked into songs in awkward, unwelcome ways. A lot of these inclusions open tracks, suggesting that there was no good way to layer the parts or create some kind of seamless arrangement that would work well. The parts exist for their own idiosyncratic sake, and don't fuel the songwriting at all. Fuc
ked Up are just playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with experimentation.
This haphazard arrangement of ideas wouldn't be a huge problem if it weren't for the fact that this issue extends beyond the inclusion of weird instrumentation. Their chord progressions, the bread and butter of any punk band, can be engaging but are juxtaposed end on end with little attention to transitions or continuity. Their songs are generally arranged in such an end on end manner. There is rarely a strong sense of arc or narrative. Songs plod. That coupled with the fact that this brand of punk is not as fast or as aggressive as standard punk, the songs just stretch out, outstaying their welcome with five-six minute runtimes. The casual pace of the songs is also a problem when considering these songs as aspiring anthems. Other than the experimental ear candy, these are chord progression based songs and feel bloated and extraneous when stretched out to those lengths. Punk's visceral immediacy is lost in all of the uninspired shoegazing. As a final and possibly all-encompassing complaint about the album's lackluster elements; didn't Fugazi do this whole thing better? The unconventional riffs and harmonic ideas, the altered tempos, chromaticisms, and modal mixture were all championed by Fugazi, and I'm reminded of this every time "The Chemistry of Common Life" expires and my out of order tracklisting for The Argument
in my iTunes playlist tees up the clairvoyantly-named "Epic Problem," a track that succeeds in every department Fuc
ked Up fails.
But there is a silver lining to every cloud of genre-splicing, overhyped, midtempo punk. For Fuc
ked Up, despite their inability to fulfill artistic expectations, they do an admirable if flawed job bringing the mosh. They traded in the glue-sniffing energy of punk for indie that moves at the pace of an elderly window-shopper, which is lamentable, but despite tedious song lengths and snail-pace beats, they still find a way to be aggressive and heavy. The in-your-face vocal performance gives the nice illusion that the album is more vicious than it really is. One of the best songs on the album, "The Chemistry of Common Life" is actually the longest, and gets there by way of the awesome drum fills and dabs of acoustic guitar that briefly invoke the folk punk of Against Me (another unfortunate punk casualty of big expectations). They find a few solid chord progressions, all of which are anthemic and have an ascending contour, and work them together with an almost post-rock-esque dedication to repetition and dynamic builds. The song slays because it is relentless and imposes its catchiness on the listener. The other really great song on the album, "Black Albino Bones," has the same Midwestern sense of melody that made Hot Water Music so great. There are a few strange, incongruous chord progressions in there, but the song is fast and fun, and the melodic chorus vocals add a much needed levity and catchiness to music that sounds like a conscious attempt at profundity. The slower, ambient tracks also don't suffer from the same bloated quality because they don't aspire to be punk at all. The complete disassociation from the categorical "heavy music" Pink Eyes mentioned in his interview sets Fuc
ked Up free on "Golden Seal" and "Looking for God."
The story of The Chemistry of Common Life
is that despite its ambitious aims and ridiculous hype, it is decidedly common. Its boundary breaking look at punk is superficial at worst and passably interesting at its very best. Fuc
ked Up can be really fun when they let loose and succumb to sounding like a more typical punk act (or when they forget they're punk at all), but are too haphazard and contrived when attempting to be cutting edge. In their quest to be profound, Fuc
ked Up found a way to be everything punk shouldn't be - turgid, slow, affected, and contrived. The only thing that saves the album is its dedication to its cause. It is a relentless and unapologetic album. In the end, Fuc
ked Up aren't nearly as good as Refused were thought to be, but hey, Refused aren't even as good as they were supposed to be, so Fuc
ked Up may yet be remembered as revolutionary.