Why Fucked Up should win the Polaris Prize

by Chris Wheeler (special to Grayowl Point)

Pink Eyes (Damian Abraham) would have you believe that he’s located a prime piece of real estate and that he’s kicked up his feet to relax. He’s collected a souvenir program from the lobby and by all signs he appears set to enjoy the day’s proceedings with an air of resigned excitement. This process brought Fucked Up critical praise last time around and this, he argues, will prevent him and his band from winning again. There are many in attendance who agree, the sentiment “Why reward a previous winner” echoing as a yearly refrain among Polaris Prize aficionados. Pink Eyes knows that David Comes To Life won’t even qualify as an underdog though he’s happy to have been invited just the same.

But David’s been through hell and back and this cur’s got more fight in him than most. The narrator and audience are just lost in the plot.

It’s this weird intersection of character, narrator, and audience that make David such a forceful and compelling story.

As audience members, rare is the moment we are made aware of our own complicity in the actions on a page or on a screen or on a stage. The written words, glass, or chairs we sit in act as barriers and we are often guilty of labeling ourselves as observers instead of participants. The challenge for the artist is to tear down those barriers and engage you on that level, make you feel fundamentally involved. I would also argue that for musicians, it has much harder to overcome that barrier. How can you participate in something you can only hear? Well, Fucked Up’s rock opera David Comes to Life is the first album to shatter that wall for me.

Hopeful and hostile, David rails against the darkness. Spurred forward only by his love for Veronica, her reassuring voice acting as a salve against his grating bark, and the knowledge that the wall will give way, that it must give way. His wall is our wall. And though neither the character nor the listener is made immediately aware of this relationship, it comes to shape the whole album and the experiences of both.

Soon, hope fades, guitars echoing David towards the next disaster; Veronica, we learn, has died. Emerging from the shadows the storyteller casts his verdict, “I knew something was curious when he would talk about how love wasn’t a race, the guilt writ on his face, right there in black and white, I think it serves him right. I told you it was him. I tell it like it is. The story served his purpose and now look at what he did.”

Furious, David addresses the passive audience on “A Slanted Tone” and condemns the narrator, condemns the listener for taking the story’s words as truth and failing to pick up the signs. “Things aren’t always the way they appear,” he says, “He’s a horn with a slanted tone, he’s the back without the bone. The king sits on a crooked throne, stuck inside of the story alone. When he raised a trumpet to his mouth the sound of every voice tumbled out.”  The song ends with a question and a plea. “How can I let them know, the truth about Octavio? That he was lying all along. Don’t trust the words you hear in a song.”

Suddenly, Veronica’s repeated refrain from “The Other Shoe,” strikes home, “We’re dying on the inside” serving as a poignant warning that the characters were suffering not just under the weight of daily strife but also under a jealous and wicked pen with the power to tell their story with impunity. Certainly, metaphors abound and there are characters that I am just not able to see; the complexity of the David’s stage can be at times overwhelming. Yet this simple hardship is so elegantly orchestrated that the eager listener finds his own place in the story and comes to understand that he must always seek this end. Anything less is a disservice to the music, the artist, the story, the characters, and himself.

Which brings us back to Pink Eyes and his fist full of popcorn. We are complicit in that story as well. Why is David’s narrative any less worthy of scrutiny than David’s? Put another way, why should Fucked Up’s Polaris Prize nomination be driven by forces and histories not of their own making, that do not reflect any current truths. On the second last song “One More Night,” David laments, “I’ve spent too much of my life defending my past.” In the present, David is destroying walls that hide those very truths. For that, he deserves our gratitude and not our condemnation. For that, he deserves the spotlight.

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