A full decade has passed since the release of Death From Above 1979’s now legendary You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, an album often credited, alongside the early work of bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes, with inventing a hard-edged, dance-punk vocabulary that characterized much of early-Aughts indie rock. However, Death From Above 1979 displayed an interest in rock riffs that also argued that they had something in common with classic rock revivalist bands of the same era, although their fans would certainly and staunchly deny it.
Time (if not money) has been almost brutally unkind to those revivalist bands, like Jet and Wolfmother, once adored by junior high school students with Led Zeppelin t-shirts. What has always set Death From Above 1979 apart from other classic-rock-indebted bands was their undeniable edge, a hormonal and razor-sharp sense of unrest that resulted in a record that is as abrasive as it is catchy. You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine is just scary enough to make it one of those rare albums that does not age with its genre or its era, but instead remains a unique and increasingly vital piece of work.
When a band returns from such a lengthy hiatus and vows to put out new music, as Death From Above 1979 have, fans can’t help but worry at the prospect of being served up a watered-down version of the thing they once loved, thus forcing them to reassess their love for the band or even the band itself. That worry becomes particularly serious when so much of the band’s sound hinges on a youthful edge, as Death From Above 1979’s sound most certainly did.
Their second album in a decade, The Physical World, is certainly slicker than their debut. The production, in contrast with the garage-band treble of their first, is full and clean. The sonic step up does not, however, hurt the quality of this record. The Physical World sounds like the sophomore album the band was always capable of producing. Like most sophomore records, that entails a bigger budget and an elaboration on the sound that initially earned them acclaim and adoration.
Jesse Keeler’s bass, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the band’s sound, still sounds as meaty as ever. And his playing is more melodic and precise than ever before, as on the killer coda of Right On, Frankenstein! and the opening licks of the rollicking Always On. Sebastien Grainger’s drums are more present and his dance grooves totally locked in. In short, sleek production techniques are kind to this band’s sound.
Time, also, has been kind to the duo. Keeler enjoyed an impressive stint with his electronic project MSTRKRFT, and Grainger’s poppiest excursions on his solo records (see especially Going With You) did wonders for his melodic capabilities. As a result, this album is certainly poppier, frequently employing hooky vocal harmonies and synths to fill out the sound. The album’s lead single, Trainwreck 1979, has enough sonic layers that it readily lent itself to arrangement for Paul Shaffer’s big band when Death From Above played it on Letterman. The song itself, however, is so good that everything that is new about it totally works. The ways in which the band has grown work very comfortably alongside the characteristics that made them unique in 2004. Although the album loses some steam in its second side, it is light-years away from disappointing. Instead, it is proof that this band has aged well.