In the name of complete disclosure, I must confess that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Death From Above 1979 on their first trip through the pop music ranks. What the band was playing at in their first go ’round was just too canny, calculated, competant and superficial for me; it played like punk geared to kids more interested in the brand name on their jeans and keeping up with fashion than to those interested in challenging authority. Not only that but it didn’t seem like the band was working too hard or quickly: they only released one album and a couple of EPs (which were light on new material) within the span of five years.
It was for those reasons that I wasn’t ravingly impressed by the band, and when it was announced that they had broken up I just figured that their record label had (to paraphrase Alice Cooper) flushed the band’s brand of fashion. Now, after an eight-year period divided between being broken up and retooling themselves, Death From Above 1979 reappears in the best shape of their careers with The Physical World, a fuller-sounding, focused and more tempered album better than anything they’ve done before.
On The Physical World, it’s impossible to miss the difference between Death From Above as they existed in 2005 and this new, re-energized incarnation of the band. First, where once the beats that Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger constructed sounded impossibly rigid, stiff and programmed, there’s an ever-so-slight swing in the beat of “Cheap Talk” which ends up totally recontextualizing the way the music moves. Suddenly, there’s a new presence of personality pushing the trebly bass which has always been a mainstay of DFA’s sound and that difference gives the music depth. Now Keeler and Grainger aren’t yelping aimlessly anymore; there’s focus to the music and that focus is intoxicating in addition to propelling both the band and the music along.
That focus carries through into “Right On, Frankenstein” and causes lyric stanzas like “I dig my own graves lately/ I don’t need any help” and “All my life, I’ve been waitin’ for you/ Not waitin’ to find out that nothin’s new/ It’s the same old song, just a different tune” to jump out from the song and slap listeners in the face. It’s remarkable; DFA has never been so active as they are here and this new presence is intoxicating.
The first side of The Physical World never falters in its focus or deviates its established course to re-establish a new Death From Above presence but, even better, the band actually starts reaching out and touching some previously undiscovered terrain on the album’s B-side. When “White Is Red” finds listeners, for example, they’ll be absolutely floored as the band dials the power down a few notches, PICKS UP A GUITAR instead of just a bass alone, and begs the forgiveness of a woman they’ve wronged. Compared with the established norms that fans had grown to expect of DFA, the difference is tantamount to a fish spontaneously sprouting legs and beginning to walk; the mercurial aggression which was DFA’s standard is perfectly absent from this song, and what we get instead is a shockingly strong alt-ballad!
Immediately thereafter, they start huffing and puffing up a swirl of vintage dance-punk steam with “Trainwreck,” presumably just to prove they still can, but then the band jumps into a state which sounds a lot like balls-out hardcore for “Government Trash,” which will just leave heads spinning; listeners who thought they knew what to expect of Death From Above 1979 will be absolutely astounded by the palette the band is working with on The Physical World‘s B-side – no one could have expected it, but no one will deny that it sounds great.
After The Physical World‘s title track explodes to close the album, listeners will find (in some cases, to their surprise) that the band has really left them wanting MORE. That isn’t to say the album wasn’t a complete offering, just that it was so damned good that they’ll be watching closely for anything more which may come from the band; this music is great and addictive and will really set a hook in deep to those who hear it. Here’s hoping the band is prepared to keep going – this is their best work ever and demands more examination.
(Last Gang/Warner Brothers)