Premature Evaluation: Death From Above 1979 The Physical World
A decade ago, when Death From Above 1979 first stalked the earth, it was hard to know what to do with them. They weren’t dance-punk, and they weren’t noise-rock, though if you squinted hard enough, they were both. They had the same personnel setup as Lightning Bolt, and they played loud riffs like Lightning Bolt, but they also had hooks and choruses and riffs that weren’t tripping all over themselves to gouge you in the ear with a rusty screwdriver. They had songs about sex that weren’t even remotely turning sex into a joke, an unheard-of thing in indie rock then (and now). They’d added the “1979” to their name partly because James Murphy threatened legal action but also partly because both dudes were born in 1979 and because 1979 was supposedly the last time pop music had been good, with Off The Wall and what have you. (These days, 2004, compared to today, looks like some lost pop-music golden era. OutKast! Timbaland! Peak Usher! You didn’t know what you had, DFA guys!) DFA1979 looked more comfortable onstage at Madison Square Garden, where I saw them open for Nine Inch Nails, than they did at the mostly-empty Baltimore club where I first saw them. And when they played the first Pitchfork Festival in 2005, back when it was still calling itself the Intonation Festival, they were the one band who punched through the prevailing sunny vibe, the weird euphoria that this thing on the internet had somehow convinced thousands of people to come to a park in Chicago to watch weird bands. They were the one band on the bill who actively made fun of the audience, and the one band on the bill who incited a moshpit big enough to kick up baseball-field dust that got caught in everyone’s throats. But if DFA1979 were a band out of time in 2004, when they released their now-classic You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, they’re even more out of time now that they’ve finally gotten around to following it up.
When DFA1979 announced their reunion in 2011, the reaction was generalized internet euphoria, but can you really call them an influential band? What, that’s out now, sounds even remotely like them? I suppose their mustaches and their trebly, beepy synths and their general sense of coked-up barfly slither had some impact on the whole Ed Banger blog-house scene, but even that is pretty much over these days. And nobody in indie rock seems to be combine riffs and sex and impact in ways that even remotely reflect the sounds on You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. So maybe the best thing about The Physical World, the band’s first album in a decade, is how detached they sound from anything else that’s happening right now. They kick and snort and preen, and the effect is a pleasant sort of shock. These are, after all, still things that rock bands can do. So when Sebastien Grainger starts out first single “Trainwreck 1979” howling, “I was born on a highway in a trainwreck,” he’s displaying a level of confidence that we’ve been trained, through years of experience, not to expect from a rock frontman. It’s the same on “Virgins,” where he bellows, “Where have all the virgins gone?” and makes it clear that he would like to find one. There’s some self-awareness in his voice on those lines, but he’s still belting these lines out without holding anything back, and it’s been forever since we’ve heard a rock frontman willing to risk sounding ridiculous like that.
So The Physical World ends up being a fun, rewarding listen even if it never comes closing to ascending to the heights of the band’s last album. Before releasing The Physical World, Grainger gave some interviews that suggested the whole reunion-album thing was, in some ways, the band’s attempt to get the world off their backs. Around the same time the band announced the album’s release, Grainger told NME, “We’re putting out a Death From Above record and if the press is like, ‘It’s not what we expected,’ or however they react to it, it’s like, ‘Well, you’ve been fucking asking for it.'” He also said the album’s existence would “permit us to play the shows we want to play.” Even if Grainger didn’t mean it that way, the quote reads like a euphemism for “get festival money.” And while The Physical World is far from bloodless, there’s a weariness to it that the band has never displayed on the previous record.
On “Right On, Frankenstein!,” Grainger laments, “Nothing’s new / It’s the same old song, just a different tune.” And while the album’s grooves are cold and hard, they don’t have the balls-out intensity of what the band worked up on You’re A Woman. Subtle little rhythmic and melodic touches used to come so easily to this band. Think of the way the groove suddenly simmers down at the end of “Little Girl,” or the cowbell and conga work of “Sexy Results.” There’s nothing like that here. DFA aren’t tinkering with their sound anymore, figuring out new ways they can stretch it. After all, both guys have careers on their own now, and they’re probably going to use their furthest-out ideas on those records. The Physical World is about recreating a sound that both of them abandoned, locking back into the thing they both abandoned a decade ago. And so they’re putting their heads down, riffing fast and hard, concerned with impact and velocity rather than playfulness. That’s a fine thing. At its base, this is still an intense and potent sound. It’s just that the base is all we’re getting now.
The Physical World is an impressive record, a record that’s happy to knock you around the way few will do now. Producer D. Sardy has seen to it that there’s a ton of bass in Jesse Keeler’s guitar, turning it into this big physical sound that you feel in your gut when you play the album loud enough. Grainger is a nimble and focused drummer, and the things that he does with his hi-hats on opening track “Cheap Talk” are enough to let you know that this band hasn’t left behind its dance influences entirely. “Trainwreck” is just a volcanic dickripper of a single, an unabashed monster with more power behind it than almost any rock song we’ve heard in recent years. But Death From Above only made one studio album before this one, and that one album left a hell of an impact; this one can’t help but feel a little lacking in the inevitable comparison.
People forget: You’re A Woman was a breakup album, an album full of loathing and recrimination and regret and impotent rage and skeezy come-ons. It was a couple of young dudes who didn’t know how to deal with heartbreak making something ferocious and high-wire and maybe kind of misogynstic out of it. Point is: It had a reason to exist. But then Death From Above toured it into the ground for a couple of years and then broke up themselves. The Physical World has its own reasons to exist, but none of them feel as urgent and life-or-death. It’s a great, utilitarian driving-fast-with-the-windows down record, and it sounds like nothing we’re likely to hear anytime soon. But it’s not a driven-by-psychosis monster. And in the tiny Death From Above discography, that makes it a distant second.