Within the family of Saddle Creek, the Omaha label founded by Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, The Faint never really made sense sonically, their music a sort of black sheep amongst the other artists. In its prime, the band would have fit in more with what was happening in New York in the early ‘00s, with dance-punk and a fondness for the less vibrant color spectrum—not necessarily perpetually dark, but overcast for sure—catching on. Black sheep turns out to be a more apt metaphor than usual.
Still, some minor acclaim for their early work, Blank Wave Arcade, and their most-beloved release, Danse Macabre, helped them in finding an audience well after Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst had ceased being a member of their outfit (though the band did back Oberst for Digital Ash in a Digital Urn). The Faint ultimately reached a sizable audience at a time when indie bands were finding success universally, but they never really capitalized on their opportunity as much as possible, either. Their last LP, Fascination, enjoyed a top 50 debut on the Billboard 200, but that peak is hardly grounds for putting much faith in its follow-up.
It is hard to say what audience is out there for The Faint in 2014. The teenagers who flocked to them in their prime are all grown up; the dark wave aesthetic is largely unexciting outside of Cold Cave, and the band hasn’t been maintaining the highest profile aside from occasional one-off festival sets. But that isn’t to say The Faint don’t have a plan on Doom Abuse, and it actually works about as well as possible: bombastic, nearly comical amplifying of everything that defines them.
Go big or go home, the adage says, and The Faint listened. If Doom Abuse lacks subtlety, it is only because it’s hard to be subtle when you have songs called “Help in the Head,” “Salt My Doom,” “Lesson from the Darkness,” “Evil Voices” and, well, you get the point. The gothic morbidity of The Faint has always had a wink behind it; it is dance music first and foremost. In fact, their best songs, like the b-side “Take Me to the Hospital,” double down on the smirks, and Doom Abuse tries to tap into that vein song after song.
Often it works, as on the brief pile-drive “Salt My Doom,” which speeds through videogame bleeps, punk drums and chant-along vocals with such good humor that it’s hard to resist the fun of its morbidity. “Scapegoat” is ridiculously catchy in the mold of Thin Lizzy or AC/DC, a song that is just off-kilter enough to avoid seeming like pandering. And closer “Damage Control” tilts nearer to the Crystal Castles’ territory they braved on “Affection,” but after 11 songs that never really hit on genuine emotion, context renders “Damage Control” from being a complete transformation. Still, it’s a good song and leaves the listener with a positive impression after hearing the album in its entirety.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s hard to say Doom Abuse is a good album. It’s a fun album, an album that the world is better for having, but hardly something you hope other musicians hear and emulate. The vocoder at the end of “Evil Voices” delves into self-parody, and “Animal Needs” tests the listener’s good will with a sophomoric misstep that would make it understandable if one bailed before it concluded. But for the most part, The Faint’s refusal to take themselves too seriously and their faithful embrace of black nail polish and graveyards is sort of charming in and of itself. In an era where irony is looked at as passé, The Faint succeed in being sincerely ironic, their contradictions coming from an honest place. This allows for the less over-the-top moments, like the unadorned mover “Loss of Head” to be refreshing without casting a shadow on the rest of the work. Over nearly 20 years of recording, Todd Fink has learned the art of balance, and putting a mind-numbing aside like “Dress Code” right after “Loss of Head” is the kind of move that will give The Faint an opportunity to win a few new fans. Those 20 years of recording have finally made The Faint original, and that is not common nor dismissible, and it beats being in style any day of the week.