by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
Luckily for them, no one needs to rationalize the existence of Death from Above in 2017. While some bands haven’t been nearly as lucky to come back roaring and releasing a work arguably as vital as their initial run, when The Physical World saw release in 2014, the power, songwriting, and performance was in full swing as anyone who has seen them on tour will attest. No matter who you ask, few would be unwilling to admit that the band’s reformative record didn’t earn the right for a follow-up, unlike other reunion records (cough *Uncanney Valley* cough). Even more advantageous is the cultural credit the band seemingly earned with their second release, which gave the fans what they wanted without ever sounding regressive or pandering – a delicate balancing act to sustain over an entire record.
Alas, the ugly beast that is the third album - come to think of it, numerical value be damned, it never feels like an expectant release, is an uncomplicated one - and lucky for them, DFA have the goodwill earned from a classic first album and a standard-bearing follow-up. It was odd and anarchonistic enough to welcome them back in 2014 to a world relatively less inclined to microgenre-making and more inclined to poptimism. However, this band, while riding the wave of dance-punk in the early aughts, never had much geographic or sonic to share with that particular trainwreck-in-waiting. Where this leaves them is without a relative heap of expectation and a small, but undeniable “blank check” opportunity.
The big question here being “Will that check cash or will it bounce, baby”?
Unfortunately, at least for the time being, it looks like we aren’t getting a full payment, but we aren’t walking home empty handed either. It’s hard to begin talking about the album’s contents without making something of the album’s artwork here. The thematic thread all but kicks you in the dick with the title and the spotlight-shining presentation – perhaps an exclamatory bit of ribbing aimed at the opportunistic and zeitgeist-riding. DFA, who are known for their libidinous odes to the salad days and subsequent crashes of romantic life have always been outspoken and emphatic lyrically, but overtly sociopolitical? No ma'am/sir, I think not.
But a closer look at that album artwork and the preceding press surrounding the album tells a parallel story: gone is the “1979” that litigiously adorned their namesake nearly from day one. The dissolution of the Tim Golsworthy and James Murphy’s DFA Records’ cultural cache allowed for the perfect opportunity to snatch the reins back on their career narrative and with the epithetic transition is a symbol that the band is now writing their own rulebook. And the contents of the album itself certainly do suggest some attempt to do that.
“Some,” I said.
The sweaty gravitas that a cursory glance at the tracklisting might impress (“Nomad,” ”Moonlight,” and “Holy Books”) dries up quickly once the opening song kicks down the door, allowing the hi-hat to knowingly bait us into a bluesy riff not unlike the oddly-trodden territory that “Virgins” contentiously occupied. Despite the cries from critics deeming it poorly feigned Black Keys, the song connected with fans and a live audience, opening the door to let their inner Zep rep. The performance and production here is undeniably revitalizing, but the riff itself doesn’t have the same edge that the 2014 counterpart did.
Unfortunately, this first track ends up being a harbinger of roughly 30% of the album’s failed attempts to embrace a bluesier riff-centric vibe, most notably employed on “Caught Up,” where a flatulent bass figure luckily takes a backseat to some snappy drums and handclaps. Elsewhere “Statues” introduces a more much more tempting riff, but employs a confidence and swagger that rides the track to triumph.
The rest of the record falls somewhere between resting back on their heels and gently dipping a toe into unknown waters with mixed results. “Freeze Me,” the first non-committal taste listeners had of this album, is definitely a response to those who thought that the second record was simply “more of the same.” “Freeze” begins with a techno-indebted piano figure which acts as the fulcrum for the rest of the song before quickly morphing into a bludgeoning bass, synth, and drum combo. The song carefully spends its runtime doing a highwire act balancing the quieter piano-led portions with the pummeling rock the band so loves. Lyrically the song tries to subtly introduce ideas into the sexual mores of the typical DFA narrative by throwing in allusions to “siftin’ through the rubble” and “reading me my rights.” Now before you go throwing stones at the band for going overtly political it should be noted that these bare phrases would not stand out at all were it not for the album’s greater themes at large.
“Caught Up” is where things start to dip a little too heavily into awkward commentary. The song itself holds the most labored riff of their career, recalling a high school band playing live for the first time, excited to show you “this one killer riff we wrote.” The bass here serves as the gum on the bottom of the percussion's shoe; as much work as the drums are doing to keep the song grounded in a groove - replete with smile inducing handclaps - the bass seems to be constantly in the process of deflating and rendering the song inert. Thank God for the chorus, which brings some much-needed urgency, despite the insistent shit-storm of bass humming in the background. The lyrical references to a specific type of stagnant and Pavlovian sexuality recall themes from their past records, but here Sebastian Grainger takes the discourse on intimate conversations and aims to go wide screen with references to “the world and all it’s discontent.” Limp observations about societal expectations ultimately add up to an even soggier call-to- arms come the song’s conclusion, but you have to think “If you wanted to rouse your listeners to action, couldn’t you have attached the message to a better song?”
Outrage! Is Now opts for a type of meta-commentary where the lyrical content is mirrored in the song dynamics, staying relatively hushed until the chorus bursts forth with the same fervor with which we update our twitter accounts in protest. The volume and dynamism of the chorus here are meant to illustrate the titular “outrage” in the midst of an otherwise awkward and dull existence/song. This music is cleverly mirroring the content of the song, but it doesn’t make the music any more interesting. The ideas are engaging to think about, but once you invest in them you are only rewarded with undercooked songs, ham-fisted bass hammering, and vague pedantic lyricism.
From here the band spends the rest of the record engaging the audience using the same trusty scorched vocals and bass-style as the first two albums, while updating the formula with some lyrical patchwork depicting the difficulties of modern living and a sexually explosive Nick Cave impression on “Moonlight.” “Never Swim Alone” would even fit comfortably on their first record were it not for the more obvious allusions to social unrest.
The boys get their textspeak on with the two penultimate tracks “All I C is U & Me” and “NVR 4EVR,” the former of which drives faster and more insidiously than anything in their oeuvre and the latter of which feels redundant, before ending with the most forward-thinking song of the record.
“Holy Books” is easily the most ponderous lyrical exercise on the record, but luckily the music, which is never less than vital, helps elevate Grainger’s overtly sincere indictments to stadium rock sing-along status. The image of the band entertaining an audience of thousands is only nurtured by the contemplative piano breakdown and subsequent relaunching of the chorus.
What all of this amounts to is what sounds like the growing pains of a transitional record, something heard everywhere from The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan to the baked-in awkwardness of Taylor Swift’s most recent singles. At its best this record will always serve as a unique and interesting look into the band’s growing pains and search for relevance in an alien musical and cultural landscape. Not every gamble here works, but at the end of the day, the band hasn’t gambled enough to betray its audience, and they still brought plenty of hard-hitting jams to keep us here for LP4.