“I think our last show here was in 2003,” muses Superdrag frontman John Davis Thursday night at Bowery Ballroom. “I was there!” hoots one amped-up crowd member. “You’re old!” hoots another.
Assuming that first fan isn’t a pathological liar, both of those things are true. Let’s quickly dispense with the six syllables most commonly associated with this band: “Who sucked out the feeeeel-innnnng?” The Knoxville power-pop quartet rose to prominence in 1996 with “Sucked Out,” easily the most cynical hit of the alt-rock buzz-bin era—”In your eyes/You’ve already spread my thighs/And you’re rockin’ to the next big thing,” etc. Their subsequent trajectory started out a bit clichéd (fan-beloved but unmarketable follow-up, dropped from major label, a couple of decent—and even more cynical—records for an indie), but soon thereafter took a series of abrupt, remarkable turns: Davis, in the throes of alcoholism, is overcome with the Holy Spirit while driving down the Interstate, cleans up, cuts two Christian-overtoned solo albums, then reconvenes Superdrag after a five-year hiatus, and puts out Industry Giants, easily the best rock record of 2009 to date. Which brings us back to the Bowery, where they’re currently rampaging through the best rock show of 2009 to date, with a youthful vigor and exuberant ferocity they never had even back when they were on MTV all the time. That’s Jesus for you.
“I don’t want to slow down and mellow out just because we’re old,” Davis explains the next day, in a purring drawl wholly absent from his fantastically surly singing voice. “I’d like to counteract that. I’d like to fight against that current if at all possible. I feel better at 35 than I did at 25. Playing music that’s more physical and kinda going at it harder—I like that.”
Verily, it’s Industry Giants‘ extreme physicality that immediately grabs you, Davis repeatedly howling “Slow to speak! Slow to anger!” as a sarcastic mantra/battle cry at the onset, a harbinger of highlights to come: the vicious crunch of “Cheap Poltergeists,” the anthemic bombast of “Everything Will Be Made Right,” the Thin Lizzy twin-guitar wheedling of “Ready to Go.” As the Bowery fete ably proves, Superdrag’s back catalog is loaded with power-pop bullets—such as the cheerfully bitter post-major-label plaint “Keep It Close to Me” (“I want rock ‘n’ roll but/I don’t wanna deal with the hassle”) or the moody, volatile “Do the Vampire,” both killers tonight—but never before have they so emphasized pure power. Even “Nothing Good Is Real,” an old, soft-edged, fairly standard grunge-era ballad, works itself into a stirring, screeching frenzy, an even more remarkable spectacle given that we’re watching a born-again Christian sing his ass off on a song called “Nothing Good Is Real.”
Giants is by no means a Christian-rock record, but hints of spiritual uplift abound, especially when you contrast it with Superdrag’s last effort, 2002’s Last Call for Vitriol, which at times uncomfortably detailed Davis’s downward spiral: “Come on, baby . . . get me out of the bar,” he moaned on “Feeling Like I Do,” perhaps not yet realizing who “baby” referred to exactly. The difference now? “Well, there’s hope,” Davis tells me. “To sum it up in one word, there’s hope. I think the last record was barely kinda hangin’ on by a thread. There was kind of a hopelessness to it at times. I’d like to think—I choose to think—that all that is redeemed now. There’s definitely a theme of redemption, and there’s a lot of thanksgiving in this record as a result of that. There are definitely times where it’s, straight up, a matter of giving thanks—for being alive, number one.”
He cites “Live and Breathe,” a rare moment of calm reflection on Giants, as a prime example, “where you’re offering up thanks, just for the most basic phenomenon of being alive and walkin’ and talkin’ and still bein’ around and for, ultimately, at least in my case, being set free from bondage, so to speak. Kind of left to my own devices, I want to destroy myself. Kind of giving thanks for being free from that.”
The even more compelling flip side to writing more hopeful tunes now is how Davis deals with the oft-hopeless songs he wrote back then. He’ll still play them. Most of them. “Some of them are just a little more flippant than I care to be today,” he says. “It’s not just a question of not wanting to play certain tunes again—I don’t even want to hear them again. There’s one song called ‘Annetichrist,’ I just don’t care to play that song. And there’s another one called ‘What If You Don’t Fly’—I won’t play that. Those are really the only two songs. Other than that, I can deal with the rest of ’em on their own terms. Again, they may spring forth out of a worldview that I don’t really subscribe to now, but I can see—it was my best-guess estimate of the truth at that time. So.”
Not surprising choices, considering the lyrics (“Nothing’s cool/Nothing matters/I’m jumping off the bridge” for the former; “And when you find/Oh, yeah, God was in your mind/Your righteous life has only been a righteous lie” for the latter). But what’s most remarkable about Davis’s best-guess estimate of the truth these days isn’t as much the newfound idealism, but the feral vehemence with which Superdrag now express it: He bellows the titular chorus of “Filthy and Afraid” like a re-energized man with a clean conscience and no fear whatsoever. He’ll still play “Sucked Out,” sure, but the feeling has blessedly, miraculously returned.