Review: Death From Above 1979, The Physical World

You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine.

opinion byAUSTIN REED

T here’s nothing more discouraging than a set of stacked odds that are impossible to overcome. Having to fight is scary enough as it is, but doing so under the presumption that the fight is unwinnable from the get-go? Thanks, but no thanks.

When talking about Toronto-based dance-rock duo Death From Above 1979, there are two incontrovertible, altogether unavoidable truths that must be asserted. The first is that in 2004, they released a record that, on nearly every level that matters, revolutionized the concept of rock and roll for a lot of people. You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, holistically considered a breakup record, positioned resentment and indignation in a strangely congenial light. You could empathize with what these guys were going through, and even if you couldn’t, you really, really wanted to. Also, its timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Rock and roll was in a miserable spot in 2004. At a moment when the slander aimed at the genre far outweighed the accolades, You’re A Woman presented a sustainable solution to what turned out to be a steadilygrowingproblem. But most importantly, it reveled contradiction. It was fun because life isn’t fair. It was engaging because even the kindest people in the world can be callous. And it made sense because sometimes sensibility is bullshit. This was a powerful, angry, highly distorted record that delivered twists and jolts and overdoses of human emotion that never settled on one or two premises. You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine was all of life’s tiny, menial inconveniences aggregated into one strangely understandable 35-minute album. Aggression may have been the cause, but enlightenment was the effect.

That said, the second incontrovertible truth associated with Death From Above 1979 is that anything—absolutely, positively anything—that followed You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine was predestined to be considered not-as-good. This isn’t anyone’s fault, but by that same logic, there’s little that could be done to avoid it. So when Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler announced on February 4, 2011 that, after a four-year split, DFA1979 would reunite for a second full-length album, it’s easy to understand why the odds were immediately stacked against them.

Pitting sophomore LP The Physical World against its predecessor, therefore, isn’t the right thing to do. It might seem like the right thing to do, or the rational or the necessary thing to do, but it isn’t. You’re A Woman was emotional noise-pop sold at a premium because there was literally nothing to compare it to. The same can’t be said for The Physical World because Death From Above 1979 set a standard in 2004 that has since dictated so much of the genre’s identity. Things have changed in the past ten years, and the obvious drawback to being broken up for more than half that time is the inability to evolve in the same breath.

The not-so-obvious advantage, however, is that they completely removed themselves from the pressure to evolve. It would come as no shock whatsoever if The Physical World was a response to a mass-delivered request to follow up their monolithic debut, but it’s a relief to examine how committed Grainger and Keeler have remained to that original grunge-funk sound they established in the first place.

For starters: The Physical World is a catchy record. Pile-driving bass rumbles, staggered harmonics, lo-fi recording and Grainger’s inimitable glass-cutting timbre dominate from top to bottom with fortified finesse. But certain moments (namely: “Nothin’ Left,” and “Virgins,”) present a never-before-witnessed commitment to repeatable melody. What Grainger and Keeler demonstrate on The Physical World is something way more sonically practical. I suppose this could be viewed as a negative, given that most of You’re A Woman’s appeal was in its raw, unfiltered delivery, and any departure from it will instantly be labeled as soft. But from the standpoint of pleasantries, this is a resounding win for DFA1979.

The Physical World opener “Cheap Talk,” was just about the best foot forward Grainger and Keeler could have possibly applied. Rife with rhythmic intricacy and stair-stepper melodic construction, “Cheap Talk” bypasses the front door, opting instead to barrel through the living room wall.

Despite their announcement in 2011, Grainger and Keeler didn’t really put their money where their mouths were until earlier this year, and pre-released single “Trainwreck 1979,” was our first taste of what the implications of a reunion actually were. All the old-world elements were still there—Keeler’s slow-build guttural bass lines have never sounded tighter—but their newfound penchant for melodic rationale bursts forward with unencumbered poise, signaling just exactly what Grainger and Keeler have had in mind for this new LP.

Meanwhile, second pre-release “Government Trash,” provides a peek into the breakneck musical intricacy of DFA1979. It’s almost impossible not to consider “Government Trash,” a punk track, which speaks as much to the versatility of Grainger and Keeler as it does to the track’s cross-genre (and cross-generational) appeal.

I don’t know if The Physical World has one unanimously concrete strong point, but if it did, it’d probably be “Crystal Ball,” if only because it’s an apt representation of Keeler’s growth since the breakup. Spending most of his time as one half of MSTRKRFT paid some serious dividends in the interim, and “Crystal Ball,” shakes the DFA79 pattern by presenting something more combustible and straight-up danceable than any other track on the album.

Still, labeling “Crystal Ball,” as the strongest track on the album is about as arbitrary as a dice roll could possibly be. Loyalists will gravitate to “Gemini,” a heavy-handed exercise in Grainger’s vocal outer limits. “Gemini,” is “Sexy Results,” on Ritalin, gluing wayfaring verse structures to choral tightness using rubber cement.

“What he said, what she said / It doesn’t really matter in the end,” Grainger seethes on “Cheap Talk,” exposing the affable arrogance that defined Death From Above 1979 in their early aughts. It’s good to hear it again, but more importantly, it establishes Grainger and Keeler’s headspace going into They Physical World. Comparisons to You’re A Woman are unavoidable, but who cares? Forget the precedent. This album succeeds in ways You’re A Woman never could have, and for that, it requires commendation. B