Review: Fucked Up, Glass Boys

On Glass Boys, Fucked Up, for maybe the first time, stick to the middle of the road.
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On Glass Boys, Fucked Up, for maybe the first time, stick to the middle of the road.
Fucked-Up-Glass-Boys

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN

One version of the Fucked Up narrative is about how their mainstream success (Polaris Prize, Best New Music, etc.) speaks less to the music than to the mainstream’s continued bewilderment when confronted with hard rock. This Torontonian crew makes post-hardcore that’s a lot heavier on the “post” than the “hardcore,” and one needn’t dig too deep on the internet to unearth disgruntled genre purists bemoaning Fucked Up as the prog-rockers, psych-rockers, post-rockers they surely are – anything, really, but punk-rockers. And this version has a kernel of truth to it. It’s not a matter of divergent outlook but method: Fucked Up’s brand of wildly imaginative record-collector post-hardcore does, in fact, dissipate–I hesitate to say “dilute”–the usual manifestations of hardcore’s clenched-fist intensity, such as breakneck pace and blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em running times. Damien “Pink Eyes” Abraham’s formidable roar alone, this version goes, does not true post-hardcore make, and the band’s more recent music only scans as “hard” to audiences used to only the filtered influence of “abrasive” genres as present in more traditionally palatable packages (for a clear analogue, see also: industrial music via Nine Inch Nails). In the internet era, what Fucked Up do when they pilfer from those sounds is what every band is doing with regard to its antecedents. Increasingly, Fucked Up have produced symphonic rock music with its perspective and a few recognizable textures, like Abraham’s voice, lifted from harder subgenres. It’s easy to see why this frustrates some listeners who are avid fans of those subgenres, seeing as Fucked Up run victory laps around the agog mainstream music press while “actual” post-hardcore acts get left in the dust all too frequently. In this version, Fucked Up are really just wolf’s clothing thrown over whichever band invites more of your disdain: the Who, or the Dirty Projectors.

That’s one version. But to get to a different version, all you have to do is change the tone of voice you’re reading in. In Version #2, more common to genre omnivores or dilettantes, Fucked Up are heroes of post-hardcore who take that sound’s basic ingredients and blow them up to a grandly sweeping scale with dazzling feats of arrangement, instrumentation, narrative lyricism, and above all, imagination. Fucked Up, runs this narrative, are champions who breathed new life into a genre with tons of energy to spare but relatively little in the way of vision. In this version, Fucked Up are Hüsker Dü. They push a certain kind of music to and then past its boundaries and forge something radiant, exciting, fresh, and unique in the process.

So which is it: are Fucked Up a punk band ruined or saved by their embrace of many other types of rock (and, hell, non-rock) musics? There are plenty of reasons to love or not love or not care one bit about this band, but it’s helpful to isolate these dominant strands of thinking now because Glass Boys, the follow-up to the critic-wooing 2011 epic David Comes To Life, is the one album by this band both camps are likely to agree on. Fucked Up have, in fact, never sounded more like Hüsker Dü than they do on Glass Boys, which means, for the purists, that they inch closer to the punk tradition at the heart of their sound than they have since select moments on 2009’s transitional The Chemistry Of Common Life. For the omnivores, it means that Fucked Up are still uncommonly accessible for a band whose frontman sounds the way Abraham does, and that there are still overtly erudite lyrical flights of fancy at play – check the references to Greek mythology and the Medicis of Florence, as well as the album’s dense metacommentary on the music industry and the power-vs.-value struggle at the heart of making supposedly independent rock music today. That is to say, on Glass Boys, Fucked Up, for maybe the first time, stick to the middle of the road.

Sound like a backhanded compliment? It is. David Comes To Life might have pushed the band so far into 1970s rock opera territory that it looked like they’d never return, but at least they went all in on the potentially gaudy display of pop ambition. Glass Boys scales back on the genre-bending arrangements, cosmic majesty, and literary density of that record, and in so doing, it scales back on a lot of the entertainment value, too – the wit, the imagination, the beauty, the sheer brute force. Opener “Echo Boomer” is great, in some ways: it’s one of the band’s classic pretty-orchestral-instrument-solo-cut-short-by-wall-of-guitars intros (cf. “Son The Father”) and while its jagged chorus unfurls at ground level, gorgeous peals of gauzy guitar ring out about. It’s pleasant – but “Echo Boomer”? A song with that title should’ve shaken the foundations of the building, and I can’t shake the feeling that on any other Fucked Up album, it would have. But by limiting their palette and curbing their ambition, the band wind up with work that’s simply not as strong. These songs feel alarmingly slack, lacking punch. Fucked Up remain accomplished musicians across the board, so it could be a matter of flattening production, or of subpar songwriting. There have been reports of a challenging writing and recording process marred by internal dispute, so it could simply be a matter of energy.

Fucked Up don’t leave themselves many outs here, and guitarist Mike Haliechuk ends up shouldering more of the load than he should have to. Nearly all of the finest moments on Glass Boys are his doing, from the nimble, fascinating lead guitar on “Touch Stone,” the way the melodic parts step subtly forward from the “The Great Divide”’s bludgeoning wall of sound, or the all-out rock star guitar solo that stomps on an Arcade Fire-esque piano bridge during “Warm Change.” The guitar parts keep to the stripped down rock sound of Glass Boys while changing up its style, basically doing the work done by whole arrangements on David Comes To Life. “The Art Of Patrons” follows an established Fucked Up template, threading a harmonized vocal chant through the sonic melee, but when it hits its awe-inspiring breakdown, the magic comes not from those incongruous vocals (as on, say, “The Other Shoe,” where the vocals constituted the main attraction) but rather from a crunching guitar line that sounds ecstatic to be given an opportunity to imitate the Who. It’s telling of the state of things here that Glass Boys’ most consistent section is the run of more straightforward hard-rock tracks on Side B and that its nadir is the depressingly rote David Comes To Life redux “Sun Glass.” There’s something off in the execution of this record and not all of the band members compensate for it equally.

To be fair, a mediocre Fucked Up song is still lightyears better than the work of many of their peers. But what makes this band’s music great is its musical, theatrical, thematic, and conceptual ambitions, all of them so outsized they threaten to become gaudy. There’s a sense of real risk to the bold decisions that define their back catalogue that’s thrilling to behold in action, and it’s missing from Glass Boys. The two camps I described above, talking about Fucked Up’s popular reception, might well disagree about what Glass Boys is doing, whether it spreads itself too thin or plays things too safe. But they’ll likely agree that the band too frequently misses whatever mark it’s trying to hit to call Glass Boys a success. C+