Death From Above 1979's First Album in 10 Years Is Terrible

Jesse from DFA at ACL in 2011
Jesse from DFA at ACL in 2011
Pete Freedman

Death From Above 1979, who I will now shorten to DFA, released their debut album 10 years ago. It was, until today, their only album. Much like I enjoy pretending there were no sequels to The Matrix, I'm going to pretend DFA never released a second album as soon as I've finished writing this blog. Here's why.

You're a Woman, I'm a Machine is one of the most riotous, balls-to-the-wall, straight-up rock albums of the 21st century. It took so many different elements of what made music that fell under the umbrella of "heavy" appealing, and it distilled all of them to just a bass and drums. In the early 2000s DFA were, to all extents and purposes, the Metal White Stripes. Now, that's a terrible thing to say, one of those lowest common denominator-reducers that I sometimes write, and that I deserve to be castigated for. [You're a terrible person, Gavin. -- Ed.] Furious as you might be right now, it is actually true. Let's take a quick look at YAWIAM.

Here we see DFA in their element, annihilating a small room to the tune of "Romantic Rights," which was about as tuneful as YAWIAM got. It was tuneful in the sense that the chorus was shoutable (note, not melodic and singable, but shoutable), and that some of the harmonics on the bass sounded a bit like notes, the way other music might have done.

We, the public, do not need DFA to be tuneful. If we want bands playing heavy music with tuneful singing and melodies and so forth, we will look elsewhere. It is not their job, and to introduce melodies and tunes to something so awesome is to completely forego the reason it was good in the first place. The piano we hear on YAWIAM is used because it is in such stark contrast to the rest of the music.

Remember that, because it's important.

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Right. Put this on. It's "Trainwreck 1979" from The Physical World, the new album that's out today. You will notice, from the very beginning, we are in serious trouble. There's a rhythmic device that sounds a bit like someone breathing in two different tones. It then abruptly stops as the lyrics come in, because that was a terrible idea. Then there's a tambourine. Sure, the chugging riff is just about doing its job, although it might only have found its way onto a lesser album track on YAWIAM. "Blood On Our Hands" would have eaten this bassline like Ozzy did that bat, only with even more fury. It also appears to just be the bassline to "Black History Month" with fewer notes.

Then, we get to 45 seconds into the track, and all hell breaks loose. Except all hell does not break loose in the appropriate way. All hell breaks loose in exactly the reverse of the way it should have done. Choruses on YAWIAM merely serve to extend the awesomeness that's happening all around them, serving as either, in the case of a track like "Cold War," a temporary yet still kick-ass break from the insanity happening all around it, or in the case of "Go Home, Get Down" a cymbal-smash of an apex to a chorus that was already going way over the normal speed limit.

What we have in the appropriately named "Trainwreck 1979" is something akin to a DFA cover band trying their hand at re-writing "Killer Queen," complete with melodic "oo-oooh"s. What the fuck, DFA? We needed you back. This is like the monkey's paw version of DFA.

"I wish for DFA to come back and make a new album."

"Your wish is granted, but it's going to sound like 1970s glam rock."

"Wait, what?"

Is this a push for the mainstream? Did DFA just spend 10 years listening to pop and seeing how they could fit a trademark DFA bassline into pop? Do they just literally not give a solitary fuck?

"Wait a second, Gavin," I hear you cry. "Aren't you just using one of the better songs off YAWIAM against one track off The Physical World?" Dear reader, I only do so to give you one of many examples about what is wrong with the new album. I am as upset as you are.

"Trainwreck 1979" is indeed one of the highlights of the new album, simply because it has an appreciably DFA bassline. The rest of the album sounds like someone went in and surgically removed everything that made YAWIAM one of the most brutally satisfying, air-drum, shake-your-head records of the last 15 years.

A lot of it, especially almost unlistenable disasters like "Crystal Ball" or "Virgins," sounds like it might have been written for whatever pop artist is in need of a slightly different but not too challenging direction right now. You can almost see the backing dancers shaking their thing. There are pianos. There are harmonies. There are un-ironic handclaps. At one point, handclaps are an outro. Only the second single off the album, "Government Trash," seems to remember what made DFA so engaging. It has the one excellent riff of the album, but it would have been one of the most boring songs on YAWIAM.

This is unacceptable. For two guys with such a blinding insight into what made metal and/or punk so goddamn appealing, so very furious, so much fun, it's just an incredible letdown. We needed a record that smashed the cobwebs away, that made us forget it was 10 years since YAWIAM. Instead, 10 years seems like a very long time now.


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