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Iceage, ‘You’re Nothing’ (Matador)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Label: Matador

Oh, Iceage. You are classicists perhaps by accident, and that is awesome.

One of the great pleasures of being a serious pop-music fan is basking in the warm glow of the Excellent Second Album (That Amplifies and Enhances Things Awesome About the First). The Stooges’ Funhouse turned the trash-can fire of their debut into a towering inferno. The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat took their established penchant for horrible noise and ran with it. Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy inched ever closer to the ideals of pure Danhood. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Straight Outta Compton changed lives, as did Sabbath’s Paranoid, Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, and some album called Nevermind.

You’re Nothing vies for that pantheon, which is a surprise, because too often, punk rock (and especially hardcore) has failed to produce that monster sophomore album, possibly because it’s more reliant on the EP as a brilliant opening gambit. Minor Threat’s lone full-length is a distant second to their EPs. Bad Brains never topped the ROIR tape. The Sex Pistols didn’t even bother with a second record (and no, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle does not count).

But Iceage are undaunted. They seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere (well, Denmark, where they did make a debut EP in ’09), four dudes on the sunny side of 21 who broke through with New Brigade, a stunning debut album that provided one of 2011’s most unexpected thrill rides. Vibing off early Wire, Joy Division when they were still Warsaw (if you’ve never heard that oft-bootlegged album, get to either a record store or Soulseek), and their own experiences as European punk kids with sickly voices and a flare for panic, the album crashed a mess of year-end lists. Singer and guitar-basher Elias Ronnenfelt sounded like he was viciously fighting off a cold, while his cohorts wielded riffs that could launch a million blogs and tried their damnedest to hammer them into songs. The pieces were familiar, but the whole sounded unexpectedly fresh, which is both harder than it looks and probably only achievable if you’re not actually trying. (This is also a fine tradition: American bands shoot for the Beatles and the Stones, only to end up as the Seeds and the Sonics.)

You’re Nothing turns everything up — it’s smarter, faster, catchier and noisier than their debut, more a Funhouse than a Rock for Light. This points to another pleasure of the underground: watching young bands go from good to great in real time. Live Iceage shows inNew Brigade‘s aftermath were a revelation, full of tight songs that got faster and messier live, the band members careening about the stage, either high on their own electricity or really drunk. That energy leaks into this album.

And so the opener, “Ecstasy,” starts steady but soon breaks into a brisk trot, Ronnenfelt musing darkly (“Each day another rock upon my head / Each night I lie awake in bed”) before launching a seriously slam-worthy breakdown: “What shade / Of joy / Will hit / Me first?” At times his voice evokes a young, stuffed-up Joe Strummer, trying to understand the world before it breaks him in two. On first single “Coalition,” he seems to run into serious girl problems (“She gives me signals / But our hearts are not the same / Wants me to take her / But blockades run through my veins”); let’s just say that “Something denies coalition with you” is a mostly non-creepy way of suggesting things aren’t working. But guitarist Johan Wieth is there to bail him out, zooming in with some prime fist-pump material while Ronnenfelt screams, “EXCESS!” like the frustrated twentysomething he is.

“Awake,” meanwhile, is almost an anthem, echoing the turn toward Joy Division-as-stadium-rock that U2, as well as many a punk band, have made over the years. The opening riff is a testament to Iceage’s knack for recombination: It’s almost the Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” and almost an Echo and the Bunnymen refugee, but it’s not quite all of either. And then Ronnefelt reminds you he’s still figuring it all out, just like most folks his age, plotting the end times in his head: “In pleasant cages / Through adolescence / We’re out of time / It’s closing in / These walls are growing higher and we’re / Running out of time.” My guess is the third album will kill, if life doesn’t kill them first.