Death From Above
Outrage! Is Now
[Last Gang; 2017]
Outrage! Is Now is a fucking boring album. Yes, it “Rocks”®. That’s something I can’t touch. It’s musically engineered from elements so well worn that it couldn’t possibly fail. Death From Above treat listeners to endless Guitar Center-tested minor pentatonic riffs set over athletic dance rock beats acutely designed to tease the difference between a dance floor and a mosh pit. The main riff that drives opener “Nomad” may well be lifted from classic rock revivalists Wolfmother and their 2006 breakout hit “Woman” (which itself is lifted from actual classic rock band Black Sabbath). Beyond this, listeners are treated to tired production gimmicks right off the bat: twice in the album’s first five minutes we get to hear a tinny high-pass filter give way to a more massive, blown-out full-band sound, a trick built of cinematic drama and self-aggrandizement that we continue to be treated to throughout the remainder of the album.
I can’t tell you that these tricks don’t work well, because they do. But what I can tell you is that they don’t exactly constitute creativity, leading to music that feels regurgitative, calculated, and industry-tested. This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the fact that the album positions itself as somehow relevant to its surroundings, somehow speaking to a climate of outrage, despite its seeming insincerity regarding the political and social contexts it finds itself in. The shallow cynicism and apathy that animates so many of its songs are under-interrogated by its writers, instead finding form as a pessimist’s non-committal, inconclusive pouting.
Several of the album’s central lyrical hooks rely on cheap wordplay of the sort that suggests further meaning but adds little poetic value. Consider the refrain “Nomad, never home/ No matter where you go/ Push them like they push you/ No matter what you do,” which takes its central subject of a nomad from the meaningless pun between the word “nomad” and the phrase “no matter.” Beyond the absurdly insubstantial forced resonance between the two words, these lines lack insight altogether1. Worse yet is the wordplay from which the album’s faux-political front cover declaration stems. “Outrage! Is Now” begins with this tone-deaf incitation:
“Outrage! Outrage! I’m Out Of Rage
Maybe It’s My Age
But I Can See
A Clear Light
So What. So What.
Maybe I’m Wrong
Suddenly, I Don’t Belong
To Anyone, Or Anything”
I’m surprised that lyrics this offensively mediocre can fly, even from a duo whose initial success was primarily pinned on one lucky album and a successful design campaign. The beautiful irony of these lyrics is that their concern with age bring the duo back into conversation with their indie revival rockstar peer James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), who they once, in 2004, so eloquently “threatened” with death2. But while 2017’s aging Murphy looks inward to bring himself to show vulnerability and acknowledge that it may be best to sit out and watch the valuable conversation being had (“I’ve just got nothing left to say/ I’m in no place to get it right […]I’m just too old for it now/ At least that seems to be true”), Death From Above’s lyrics lack any of the same introspection or self-awareness3.
Outrage! Is Now feels like a stranger’s interjection into a heated conversation of which the stranger has little insight, and instead of asking questions or simply listening to others, the stranger is overwhelmed by an urge to voice an opinion. This is the attitude that deceitfully puts itself on the cover. The boring and ignorant version of nihilism that occupies Outrage! Is Now is delivered from a pulpit, the major cause of utter annoyance I feel when I listen the album. It’s an unfortunate step up to the plate when the band hardly even took the soapbox in their first incarnation.
While You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine wore its womanizing sexual agenda on its spine, it nonetheless proceeded to be a truly interesting intersection of rock and dance music for its imbrication of harsh noise, explicit sexuality, and succinct repetitive hooks. Outrage! Is Now, however, cowers under a political agenda and, as such, loses all essential character. Our self-proclamatory anti-anthem “Outrage! Is Now” couldn’t be bothered to show up before the arrival of the four-minute sleaze-rock pickup line that is “Caught Up,” a song that drunkenly whispers, “I’m not caught up like all the other guys, but I’m still caught up on something.” The courtship within is incredibly bland, devoid of the excitement found in so much other sex music (including the band’s earlier work). Lyrically-depicted sex finds its place in the ambiguously titled banger “Never Swim Alone” (“Valet park my hump machine/ Backseat conceive, so unclean”), which shoots for the excitement of their earlier work but falls flat with forced rhymes referencing comment sections, Rinpoche, and carbonated water.
The music video for “Freeze Me” follows suit, valuing signification over comment. It opens with a TV newsreel depicting breaking news of decontextualized “RIOTS IN THE STREETS,” then fixing its gaze upon a quintet of intensely muscled body-builders. These characters flex, pose, relax, and play in a lavish mansion on a hill for the larger part of the video. The camera’s gaze allows simultaneous sexualization of and alienation from its subjects, an absurdly neutral fixation that doesn’t lead on to any understanding of their role in the situation. By the end of the video, they look out over their valley, brandishing deliberate eye protection and watching the large city in the distance (already in flames amidst its political uproar) disappear under a cheaply rendered mushroom cloud. The implication behind this final moment is unclear, a reading that either (a) continues the band’s cheap, immature, and condescending nihilism, or (b) directly villainizes its othered and exoticized subjects.
I know this shit is essentially 2017’s equivalent for the butt rock of yesteryear: fit to form, sure to sell, depoliticized by design. I also know that it’s meant to be fun and that hanging this much intellectual baggage on it might be a mistake (even picking up the lyric sheet might be a mistake of its own). Nonetheless, I can’t hear this record as not only an annoyance, but a bland extension of the overconfident, ignorant solipsism that once drove a self-serious sex rock duo to return to practice in 2011 with a messianic claim: “Jesse and I have decided that what we can do together should not be denied … The collision of two different worlds … we will reveal it to you. All of it happening, as it always has, in our own way.”
1. If the focus on nomadism here is intended to be somehow political, its argument is ahistorical. By insisting that their nomadic subject has been forced into nomadism and only retains that state due to permanent exile or displacement, the band seems to conflate nomadism with current situations of emigration and refuge. This makes the anathematized imperative “push them like they push you” not only naive, but condescending, insensitive, and unhelpful. If this reading seems perhaps too critical or too paranoid, then we can take the song’s interest in the nomad as an invested evocation, in which case it also fails. A wanderer is a likely source of relation for those who find themselves at the fringe of culture that may be part of why the archetype lends itself so well to hard rock and metal. However, “Nomad” not only forgoes relation by establishing that its speaker is distinctly not the nomad, but additionally by failing to provide any evocative details that allow a listener to walk in the nomad’s shoes, so to speak. “Nomad,” the album’s opening song, arises out of a single cheap pun and proceeds to say nothing.
2. James Murphy’s label DFA Records once entered a litigation suit with Death From Above (1979) over their right to use the name Death From Above. Death From Above (1979) reportedly responded at the time with a note on their website: “FUCK DFA RECORDS FUCK JAMES MURPHY WE DECLARE JIHAD ON THEM HOLY WAR ENDING IN THIER [sic] DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT… james murphy is a selfish piece of fuck that will burn in the flames of a specially dedicated rock and roll jihad. if i had the resources i would fly a plane into his skull.”
3. Consider either of these examples against Suicide’s Alan Vega, who on his 2017 posthumous release IT (recorded at age 78) was able to summon the rage that begins a song with the shouted warning: “Racists, stay away/ Hey lousy white racists, stay away.” This is not to say that such rage is to be expected as a high standard of any artist of age, but that the under-interrogation and self-delusion that these artists come forward with is a truly lazy artistic copout.