10 years later, but 10 years too late? Toronto rock duo Death From Above 1979 return with their first LP since 2004, but was it worth the wait?
Let’s get two things out of the way before I spin some lengthy and ultimately useless metaphor through this review to try and explain in “clever” and “nuanced” ways that (1) this album is not You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine; (2) this album kicks ass. There, that was easy, non? Like DFA frontman Sebastien Grainger wails on the opening track, “talkin’ cheap will never last,” so let’s get down to business, shall we?
The Physical World is a brief brisk 11 tracks that don’t quite reach 36 minutes, and you should be thankful: if the album were any longer, Keeler and Grainger would be responsible for more than a handful of rock-induced cranial failures. After 10 years brooding, simmering, and ultimately maturing, though, each of the tracks is more purposeful and carefully crafted than on their 2004 debut LP. The sound is less gritty, but still grimy and powerful—just bigger. In other words: less abrasion, more contusion.
Lyrically, the band strays into, and then away from, familiar territory. Grainger’s “Gemini,” with her “raspberry lips, never been kissed” reminds us that the Toronto rockers haven’t forgotten their lecherous roots. Still, while the raw sex and raw sound of that track harken back to the glory days of YAWIAM, The Physical World manages to build itself into a meticulous story of heartbreak, forsaken childhood, and teenage nostalgia (insofar as that’s possible in noise/dance/electro rock).
Accordingly, those “raspberry lips” and “bloodstained walls” from “Gemini” reappear in uncharted ballad territory on “White is Red”, blending breakup storytelling with some introspective ‘crooning’ unheard of for a band whose previous 11 tracks were almost strictly bitter and biting revenge tunes, or disgruntled, sexually frustrated pining. The vocals on The Physical World internally manifest narratives and tropes that escape the fresh-wound crudeness extant in the repetitive pushing in and pulling out present on You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine in favour of tight-knit tales of unplanned parenthood and elopement. Older and wiser now, the band’s lyrics reflect the aching consequences of youthful, impassioned action.
That said, tracks like “Cheap Talk” with its dancey, syncopated cowbell overlain by Keeler’s chomping bass riff, and the frantic—even eccentric—and glitchy “The Physical World” lash out like those nostalgic pains of yore, except that down in the mosh pit, at the hands of their sadistic dance-rock gods, pain is pleasure: “if my hand loses, everybody bruises.”
And then “Government Trash” knocks your head clean off your shoulders. The track is a brawler that urgently builds intensity, starting heavy and getting heavier—until Grainger unleashes the macabre climax: “they dress to kill, I dress to die” and promptly kicks his dual pedals into overdrive. Though The Physical World explores newfound lyrical and narrative depth, twisting together an almost-concept-album of suburban heartache, the duo is quick to remind us the album is still a passions-driven gutpunch. The album has a fuller sound—bass threatens to induce palpitations, vocals are cleaner and more distinct over the grime and grind—but at its core The Physical World is still kickass dance-rock.
Check out Death From Above 1979’s first music video in a decade below: