The Chemistry Of Common Life Turns 10
As far as lyric as band-thesis statements go, Fucked Up never made their ethos clearer than on the chanted refrain of “Twice Born.” “Hands up if you think you are the only one,” lead barker Damian Abraham asks in-between a number of Biblical queries concerning the fates of Peter and Pilate. Towards the end of the song, guest singer Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above 1979 answers him: “We all have our fucking hands up!” I have seen this band do this song in various rooms over the decade, from sweaty dives to opening slots in large theaters for much more polished and popular acts. I have rarely seen this song not get all the fucking hands up.
Fucked Up, the great punk standard bearers from Ontario, would have you believe they were built for maximum confrontation. The legend is that lead guitarist Jonah Falco recruited band members from the record store he worked at, intentionally aiming for a clash of personalities. Abraham can carry a melody if called upon to do so, but he’s most comfortable with a throat-shredding yell so corrosive, you can hear the spittle hit the microphone. They called themselves Fucked Up, for heaven’s sake, much to the chagrin of some of our more prudish outlets.
But the reason Fucked Up have endured and become a beloved underground institution is that they are uniters at heart, always looking to bring outsiders of all stripes together. To celebrate the release of their landmark second album The Chemistry Of Common Life, the band held a marathon 12-hour show in New York, inviting not just punk and alt icons like J Mascis and John Joseph of the Cro-Mags, but also, at the time, the somewhat-derided Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and the even-now-kinda-derided Moby. They’ve collaborated with everyone from Davey Havok of AFI to Nelly Furtado to Shenae Grimes of Degrassi: The Next Generation (must be a Canadian thing). Fucked Up are scholars of punk that have little use for punk elitism. Or any of the arbitrary stylistic and cultural hang-ups of punk, for that matter.
Fucked Up were formed in 2001 and spent years gigging and releasing a deluge of singles, EPs and one-offs; even the band members have no idea how many in total. Their debut Hidden World was released via Jade Tree in 2006, but it was The Chemistry Of Common Life, which turns a decade old this Sunday, that served as their proper introduction to the wider indie rock world. The Matador imprimatur attracted attention from outside the basement and fanzine set, and what the onlookers discovered was a group that took punk’s “no rules” ethos as seriously as possible.
Eager to commit hardcore heresy as early and often as possible, the album starts with a flute solo; French horns and bongos would later follow. Elsewhere, Haliechuk and Ben Cook and Josh Zucker would layer up to 70 guitars on some songs, for a heady, disorientingly beautiful effect that often resembled the Smashing Pumpkins more than Negative Approach. On Chemistry, Fucked Up made it clear that they weren’t just one of the best hardcore bands in the world, they were also one of the best indie rock and psychedelic bands in the world as well. But whenever Fucked Up seemed on the verge of crossing onto the wrong side of the “just pretentious enough/too pretentious” axis, Abraham would be there to stomp another chorus to the heavens.
The Chemistry Of Common Life arrived at a transitional point in indie rock. Artists like Feist, Sufjan Stevens, and Fleet Foxes had brought lush, ornate arrangements to the underground, and later to something resembling the mainstream. Thanks to iPod syncs and websites like this, indie rock was everywhere, but it was often the more polished, commercially friendly stuff pop and folk-influenced stuff that got attention. 2008 saw artists like Fucked Up, Titus Andronicus, Deerhunter, Vivian Girls, No Age, and Los Campesinos! release albums that joyfully danced in the grey areas between indie and punk, pop and distortion. While these artists didn’t release their albums in response to the gentrification of indie, per say, they did a lot to reestablish the counter-cultural ethos and love of noise to the scene. It’s not that Chemistry highlights like “Crooked Head” and “Black Albino Bones” lacked for hooks, it’s just that the band made you wade through some bad vibes for your pop thrills.
At the time, I was growing a bit weary of the folkier stuff, and was really growing to loathe Fleet Foxes, though I am willing to admit now that was a needlessly contrarian take that I can’t justify beyond “something-something soft-rock hippie bullshit makes the real underground look bad.” I was hoping more bands would rise up in the No Age/Fucked Up mold to take indie a little less NPR friendly. That, uh, is not what happened. But in retrospect, Fucked Up and their ilk did their job. Just as Guided By Voices and Pavement offered an alternative to listeners who were dismayed by how Alternative was becoming the mainstream, the indie-punk wave of 2008 showed that the underground could never be completely co-opted.
Fucked Up took joy in flaunting their technical prowess and disregard for genre puritanism; the title track, in particular, feels like them challenging the Mars Volta for the title of “Kings of Prog Punk.” But listening to the album now, the biggest heresy is that it is an album-length examination of faith, and how religion often fails to make one feel truly connected to the divine. Opener “Son The Father” finds Abraham (what a perfect surname for a spiritual seeker) asking, “It’s hard enough being born in the first place/ Who would ever want to be born again?” “Days Of Last” contemplates the empty promises of faith, positing that “the God above us/ He doesn’t really love us.” And on the above-mentioned “Twice Born,” he finds sympathy for the heretics and those that want to believe and can’t, the sinners and the sinned upon:
Hands up if you think you are the only one
Who was left upon the cross like God’s only son
But what of us all that have been left behind?
I guess we are all forsaken or forsakers
This would probably get me punched in the face by every member of this band, but in its own weird way, The Chemistry Of Common Life is the art-punk answer to U2’s The Joshua Tree, the sound of restless strivers trying to find some kind of answer and salvation while showing off their wide array of guitar pedal tricks. I don’t think Abraham found what he was looking for. Maybe he didn’t even want to. But along the way, he found something else. He found salvation in a rapturous squall, and in a scene that celebrated the wretched and, well, the fucked up, a place where it was OK to never have the answers and to flaunt a lack of grace. He couldn’t find a connection to the divine. So the connection to the weirdos in the pit would have to do.
The Chemistry Of Common Life would go on dominate Best of Lists (though not as much as, cough, Fleet Foxes did) and win the 2009 Polaris Music Prize. Fucked Up would go on to release the audacious rock opera David Comes To Life, and even Glass Boys, their retrenchment effort at a “normal” album, was bursting with ideas and creativity. As Peter Helman correctly put it a few days ago, trumpeting today’s release of their incredible double album Dose Your Dreams, “every album that Fucked Up have ever released holds a legitimate claim to being their magnum opus, their definitive statement.” It is incredible to think that this band has not only managed to keep it together (Abraham has openly admitted that it is tough for him to be in the band, and that he and Haliechuk don’t particularly get along), but continue to be one of the lift-arming outfits rock ‘n’ roll has to offer, a group dedicated to transcendence via reckless creativity and subculture conquering anthems. In their own deranged way, they’re a bit of a miracle, proof that some things are still worth believing in.