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Death from Above 1979: The Physical World (Album Review)

This is Toronto duo Death from Above 1979’s followup to their 2004 debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. It has been a long wait – multi-instrumentalist Jesse Keeler and singer and drummer Sebastien Grainger split in 2005 before reconvening for some live shows in 2011 – but admirers of their full-on assault won’t be disappointed by The Physical World. Government Trash typifies DFA 1979’s approach: pummelling riffs played with big, ugly guitars overloaded with distortion, thundering drums and brattish vocals. Better still is Gemini, which adds electronic squawks to the mix. True, there are signs of maturity: DFA 1979’s earlier songs often had endearingly daft titles, whereas the only one here that does is Right On, Frankenstein!. But like its predecessor, The Physical World is crammed with loud, fast, short songs: It even has a similar cover, an unsettling image of Keeler and Grainger with elephant trunks for noses. exhausting, but great fun.

Since the split, they‘ve tinkered away on their own projects – Grainger with his power-pop band The Mountains and later a new wave-inspired solo album ‘Yours To Discover’, Keeler with his electro duo MSTRKRFT – but it wasn’t the same. And even when they announced their reformation in 2011, one question remained: could they put their differences aside and write new music?

Good news: ‘The Physical World’ is magnificent. Hulking opener ‘Cheap Talk’ is vintage DFA 1979. They clearly haven’t forgotten the pounding thrash that made them great, but it’s not all cheap thrills and weighty beats. What makes it such a rewarding repeat listen are the layers of meaning that emerge like Renaissance paintings appearing in television static. Taken together, the songs on this record are hymns to lost innocence – both for us as individuals navigating adolescence and sexual politics (‘Virgins’, ‘Nothin’ Left’) and for society as it slides irreversibly into the digital age, losing touch with the physical world of the title. Most pointedly, the lyrics of ‘Always On’ reincarnate Kurt Cobain into a world of Facebook likes, YouTube-dictated radio playlists and Spotify-driven charts and assume he’ll top himself before sundown. “If we brought Kurt back to life, there’s no way he would survive,” Grainger sings. “No way, not a day.”

‘White Is Red’ – a rare ballad that combines a Springsteen-style road story about a heartbreaker named Frankie with a Sonic Youth squall of noise – is the album’s best song, and somehow lives up to both of those high-water marks. It’s also the record’s most accessible, straightforward moment, which could, if the band wanted it to, turn into a big Killers-style sing-along stadium anthem. Lead single ‘Trainwreck 1979’, ‘Nothin’ Left’ and the meat-tenderiser beat of ‘Government Trash’ pick up the pace again in the album’s second half. It’s all kept tight and succinct, with only a few tracks straying over the three-minute mark.

The 10-year break has obviously served DFA 1979 well. They have returned hungry and wired to shake us out of our digital comas. Put down your fucking phone for one minute and give yourself over to the visceral power of their music. There’s a big, bad planet out there, and it’s all the better for having ‘The Physical World’ in it.