What, exactly, is so fucked up about Fucked Up? Is it the band name? Sure, if you’re trying to write a piece on the band for NPR and you can’t even use their f***ing name. Is it Damian Abraham’s voice? Maybe, if the phrase “titanic, earth-shattering roar” fills you with dread. Is it the music? Well, that depends on what version of Fucked Up you’re talking about. Is it the furious hardcore insurgents railing against cops and scummy politicians on their early 7-inch releases? The prog-punk conceptualists of 2011’s epic rock opera David Comes To Life? The contemplative punk historians in classic-rock drag on 2014’s Glass Boys? The psychedelic drone experimentalists of last year’s Year Of The Snake? Or maybe it’s the band that made the new double-album opus Dose Your Dreams, out this Friday on Merge?
Fucked Up are usually labeled a hardcore band, and they are that, sometimes. They play music that’s loud and fast and hard, and their hulking frontman Damian Abraham, also known as Pink Eyes, has scars on his forehead from smashing bottles against his own face onstage during concerts. But since emerging from the sweaty basements of the Toronto underground in the early 2000s, Fucked Up have had a lot more on their mind than the average hardcore band. Their debut full-length, 2006’s Hidden World, had Abraham growling densely allusive lyrics about philosophy and the Old Testament over spoken-word interludes and string arrangements from Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett. Two years later, they broke through to the mainstream and won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for The Chemistry Of Modern Life, an album full of flutes, synthesizers, bongos, and guest vocals from Vivian Girls and Death From Above 1979’s Sebastien Grainger.
This outsized ambition reached its apex with 2011’s David Comes To Life, an album that took key elements from the band’s mythology — their mysterious (and fictional) manager David Eliade, the light bulb plant where guitarist and songwriter Mike Haliechuk once claimed to work — and turned them into a 78-minute Tommy-inspired rock opera about a man in 1980s England who falls in love with an activist, attempts to bomb the factory where he works, and does battle with the narrator for control of his own story. And so, of course, they followed it up with Glass Boys, a relatively compact, searingly personal portrait-of-the-artist-as-an-aging-punk that found Abraham grappling with his own success and the weight of punk-rock history over anthemic classic-rock riffage that sounded more like the Who or the Hold Steady than, say, Negative Approach, whose singer John Brannon provides a template for Abraham’s bellowing hardcore vocals.
If Fucked Up are fueled by the tension between dual songwriters and lyricists Damian Abraham and Mike Haliechuk — “I think Mike’s version of Fucked Up is clearly different than my version of Fucked Up,” Abraham told us in our 2014 cover story — then Glass Boys was Abraham’s version: populist, personal, all-killer no-filler hard-rock stripped of prog-rock signifiers and pretense. Although we loved it, it was also, by the band’s own estimation, something of a noble failure. “I finished Glass Boys and I’m like, ‘This is the best record we’ve ever done,'” Abraham told Billboard in a recent profile. “Then people that liked our band heard it and were like, ‘I disagree.’ We don’t play a lot of those songs anymore.” Haliechuk agreed. “Glass Boys was just like, ‘Let’s make a simple rock record,’ but there were some issues with that record; it didn’t sound confident,” he added. “Glass Boys was maybe a little bit too real — and not ‘real’ in some pretentious way. But like, if I was a fan of Fucked Up, I’d be like, ‘I don’t care what you think about the chronology of punk — just put fuckin’ saxophones on your song and be weird.'”
Which brings us to Dose Your Dreams, another left turn from a band with a Derek Zoolander-like inability to turn in any other direction. Once the arpeggiated piano and spacey female vocals of introductory track “None Of Your Business Man” subside, we’re left with Abraham’s scorched-earth shout, a hard-charging guitar riff, and yes — a saxophone. Which is to say, this is definitely Haliechuk’s version of Fucked Up. In recent interviews, Abraham has talked about how he said all that he wanted to say on Glass Boys, and beyond his role in Fucked Up, he’s been busy hosting the Viceland show The Wrestlers. So he knowingly took a back seat on Dose Your Dreams, with Haliechuk writing all of the lyrics and masterminding the music with drummer Jonah Falco. “I know to a lot of people I’m still essential, but I don’t think my role in the band has to be what it has historically been for it to still function. I think that my hope is we can find ways for this band to grow without having to have me be the guy holding it back,” Abraham told Exclaim. “There’s a straight-up disco song on the record. I would’ve been like, ‘We can’t do that, no,’ but I think for the first time maybe ever in the band, I was just like, ‘Yes,'” he explained to Billboard. “When it came to everything Mike proposed I was like, ‘Let’s try it, I’m not going to fight you on anything on this record.'”
And so, over the course of the record’s next 17 songs, in addition to plenty of huge, hooky rock ‘n’ roll, we get the heavy power-pop melodicism of “Normal People,” the slow-burning ambient psychedelia of “Torch To Light” and “Talking Pictures,” the maximalist synth-flecked punk of “House Of Keys,” the disco-infused Primal Scream groove of the title track, the dreamy Spiritualized-esque space-rock drift of “How To Die Happy,” the Beach Boys-by-way-of-Panda Bear harmonies on “Two I’s Closed” and “Love Is An Island In The Sea,” the filthy industrial NIN clangor of “Mechanical Bull,” the krautrock epic “Joy Stops Time,” and the fuzzed-out ’90s indie-rock of “Came Down Wrong,” featuring fuzzed-out ’90s indie-rock hero J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. on vocals.
And Mascis is not alone: Abraham and his thunderous voice only appear on about two-thirds of the album’s tracks, often popping in more than halfway through a song. He shares vocal duties with a whole polyphonic spree of singers: the band’s own guitarists Mike Haliechuk and Ben Cook and drummer Jonah Falco, their frequent collaborator Jennifer Castle, rising Los Angeles indie star Miya Folick, Colombian-Canadian singer and fellow Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta, and more. If you think you’d like Fucked Up but can’t get past Abraham’s voice, well, you’re wrong — his voice is awesome — but also, this is the album to check out.
With its willful eclecticism, Dose Your Dreams is at once the weirdest and most experimental album that Fucked Up have ever made and the poppiest and most accessible. It takes the lessons the band has learned from their long-running series of EPs named for the Chinese Zodiac — 20-plus-minute experimental excursions exploring drone, ambient, psychedelia, noise, prog, fusion, new age, post-rock, and modern classical — and scales them down to fit a digestible pop format. The sonic diversity means that despite its length, it might have the best pacing of any Fucked Up record to date, moving from hard-hitting endorphin-rush punk-rock peaks to head-nodding psychedelic groove valleys. It somehow comes together as a cohesive statement that all sounds like the work of the same band, and, what’s more, every single song is fucking great. Every album that Fucked Up have ever released holds a legitimate claim to being their magnum opus, their definitive statement, and it’s hard to tell if Dose Your Dreams is their best album. But more than any other, it sounds like a band fully unleashed, unshackled from genre convention and quite possibly good sense, following its own muse somewhere truly special.
Like David Comes To Life before it, Dose Your Dreams is a double-album rock opera that runs over an hour. And like David Comes To Life before it, Dose Your Dreams follows the story of David Eliade, once a downtrodden blue-collar factory worker, now a disaffected white-collar office drone stuck in a soul-sucking desk job. He gets fired and meets an old homeless sorceress in the dumpster behind his office. She opens his eyes to the meaningless drudgery of late capitalist society and sends him on a metaphysical journey through space, time, and multiple dimensions. Following the album’s narrative isn’t at all a prerequisite for enjoyment — it’s pretty much impossible to follow without a lyrics sheet, and even with one, it’s still mostly impossible. But, if I’m understanding correctly, what it comes down to is a simple, age-old message about rejecting the status quo and the banal and the boring, shrugging off the yoke of social conventions and norms, embracing the radical joy of your own dreams, and working to wrestle those dreams into reality. It is, in other words, an album about its own making.
In a statement that accompanied the announcement of the album, Owen Pallett, who once again provided string arrangements for the band, wrote, “I was sent an unfinished version of Dose Your Dreams so that I might contribute string parts. I couldn’t stop listening to the rough mixes I received. A friend asked me how the record was. I replied, ‘My God, Fucked Up have made their Screamadelica.'” It’s an apt comparison. Like Primal Scream’s 1991 masterpiece, Dose Your Dreams is a drug trip of an album that spikes its rock DNA with psychedelic dance-music grooves and sounds like an entire record collection collectively straining for transcendence. Screamadelica succeeded, recalling its influences while still sounding like nothing but itself. So does Dose Your Dreams.
Which brings us back to our original question. What, exactly, is so fucked up about Fucked Up? Is it the band name? Is it Damian Abraham’s voice? Is it the music? The answer, is, well, everything. A hardcore band called Fucked Up, that started out calling its members things like Pink Eyes, 10,000 Marbles, Mustard Gas, and Concentration Camp, shouldn’t be able to break into the mainstream as unlikely indie-rock heroes. They shouldn’t be able straddle the worlds of hardcore and art-rock, to pen labyrinthine metafictional rock operas about terrorism and time travel, to make bruising punk torpedoes and angelic reveries. They shouldn’t be able to make their Screamadelica. And yet, with Dose Your Dreams, they have. That’s what’s fucked up — and that’s what’s Fucked Up.
Dose Your Dreams is out 10/5 on Merge Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
- Cat Power’s powerful, stripped-down folk comeback Wanderer.
- Swearin’s triumphant pop-punk reunion Fall Into The Sun.
- Big Thief leader Adrianne Lenker’s beautiful new solo album abysskiss.
- Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s world-conquering A Star Is Born soundtrack.
- Cursive’s moody, operatic return Vitriola.
- Madeline Kenney’s Jenn Wasner-produced dream-popper Perfect Shapes.
- Eric Church’s Southern-fried country-rocker Desperate Man.
- Phosphorescent’s reliably rambling folk-rocker C’est La Vie.
- Echo & The Bunnymen’s orchestral reimagining of their back catalogue, The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon.
- Windhand’s grungy, psychedelic doom-metal LP Eternal Return.
- Atmosphere’s underground rap meditation Mi Vida Local.
- High On Fire’s thunderous Electric Messiah.
- T.I.’s Dave Chappelle-featuring rap album Dime Trap.
- GABI’s airy avant-pop experiment Empty Me.
- Journey frontman Steve Perry’s solo comeback Traces.
- mewithoutYou’s expansive emo excursion [Untitled].
- KT Tunstall’s anthemic, second-in-a-trilogy Wax.
- Ghostface Killah’s ’90s rap throwback The Lost Tapes.
- Twenty One Pilots’ genre-blurring rap-rock-popper Trench.
- Kelela’s remix album TAKE ME A_PART, THE REMIXES.
- Petite Noir’s mini-album La Maison Noir / The Black House.
- Sam Wilkes’ experimental, psychedelic WILKES.
- Nathan Bowles’ banjo-filled Plainly Mistaken.
- Au Revoir Simone member Erika Spring’s Scars.
- David Nance Group’s garage-rocker Peaced And Slightly Pulverized.
- The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart frontman Kip Berman’s debut the Natvral EP Know Me More.
- Pip Blom’s Paycheck EP.
- MUNYA’s Delmano EP.