First, some great stuff.
The new Field Music- Great!
The Callers/Delicate Steve 7 inch- Great!
Next, a caveat. Writing political music is hard. On the same day that The Quietus gave a overwhlemingly negative review to a recent collection by neo-Billy Bragg songwriter Frank Turner, criticizing not his music nor his lyrics but the sheer audacity he has to sing about politics when his politics don’t always stand up to microscopic scrutiny, they praised the new album by loud, dumb dance-rockers The Maccabees for being, well, loud and dumb. Dylan gave it up, MIA got her ass handed to her by a well written NY Times article, Common became irrelevant, the fact that Bad Religion still exist scares the daylight out of me, etc. Politics in music is really, really hard.
And Against Me! are a hard band, even within the realm of groups who engage with politics. Yep, this is a long post about my wrestling with Against Me! wrestling with themselves.
Against Me! started easily, though. They were a way for a young, snotty, donkey-voiced punk named Tom Gabel to make fun of the rigid limitations of the punk scene. The band’s early EPs and their first full length album, Reinventing Axel Rose are filled with mostly acoustic songs making fun of crust punks and talking about drinking. Issues of politics were irrelevant at this point; asking 2001-era- Tom Gabel to write a song about globalization would be akin to asking Jon Stewart to do a passionate issue-based report on the perceived role of faith in red state-blue state divide. Both could happen, but both would be beside the point.
The band’s second album was already heralded drastic changes, and the backlash against such change had already begun. With the move from the tiny, not-so-well distributed No Idea records to Fat Wreck Chords, one of two punk label behemoths, the band ratcheted expectations way up. They also pissed off a lot of the purists that the band spent most of their time making fun of, anyway. It was all good fun for anyone with a triple-digit IQ. In general, aside from a slightly more fleshed-out sound, the band’s second full length didn’t change the groups modus operandi that much. As The Eternal Cowboy’s first track, “TSR” sets the tone for the bulk of the album, taking digs at the punk scene, focusing on a party filled with “resonation, laughter, and conversation” and still concluding “It was fun while it lasted, but now we should be going.” “Rice and Bread” bemoans the ascetic lifestyle of the squat house and the insular nature of their politics “Surviving just by questioning/Well, can you imagine if we all started demanding?” For the most part, the same question could be turned back at the band. And maybe that was Gabel’s point.
One thing that Against Me! has repeatedly done over the course of their career is drop hints of where they’re going before they go there. The hint on …As The Eternal Cowboy is the penultimate track, “Turn Those Clapping Hands into Angry Balled Fists.” Gabel’s first line, “Sleep on pillows made in Singapore” hints at a tension previously absent in Against Me! songs. This is the first time we’re not laughing with him, and he might not be laughing at all. The song focuses being young, poor, and educated, and the list of inanities he runs through (“drink your coffee in the morning” “your doors are locked in safety”) suggest a kind of neutered or, at least blind anger. About a minute before it ends, there is, on the surface a release of tension. The the guitarist shreds, the drummer fists his sticks into that snare, and Gabel’s voice rises from lament to protest. It would seem like something’s gonna break. I mean, Gabel sings “If something doesn’t break/I’m just going to go, go fucking insane.” But nothing really comes of it. Leaves you thinking.
The song comes out of nowhere. It seems to negate much of the lighthearted prodding, the irony-cemented anti-mantras which Against Me! had written up to this point. And it get’s confusing. What to make of Gabel when he rants
I hate these songs
I hate the words
that the singer is singing to me
I hate this melody
I hate this stupid fucking drum beat
As obvious and straightforward as these lines seem, they are simultaneously really vague. Whose song? Whose words? Gabel’s? Why keep going if you hate it so much? Gabel isn’t out to provide an answer which makes the song both compelling emotionally and unfulfulling intellectually. He ends the song shouting the self aware-falsity, “everything’s gonna be alright.” So the song doesn’t make sense, but emotion comes though. After that, there’s a love song and the album ends.
Again, between albums 2 and 3, there band’s profile increased. They were written up in Rolling Stone, got to hire one of punk rock’s most famous and well-respected producers (J. Robbins) and were given actual time in an actual recording studio to make the album. Unlike their previous albums, there were people waiting for Searching For a Former Clarity.
Then that album dropped. And it was/is an even split- a third masterpiece, a third disaster and a third forgettable. From the title of the album, this was a band taking themselves more seriously. Gone was the humor and faux-bombast of Reinventing Axl Rose and …As the Eternal Cowboy. Searching for a Former Clarity conjures up serious thoughts. Honesty, to me it conjures up art, a label I don’t think the band would’ve been comfortable with up to that point. When the album works, it stays abstract. The more specific, the worse.
Opener “Miami” shit-talks the city to no end, but just sounds crotchety doing it. “Justin” calls out Yahoo e-mail for not letting a dead soldier’s family read his e-mails, which admittedly is terrible, but does so through lines as clunky as, “You know Justin? Well, Justin’s dead/And Yahoo won’t let his family have access to his e-mail account.” Seriously. That second line is how they chose to present that story. There’s the stupid song about Condoleezza Rice “The Mover,” and the terrible song about how terrible this band your listening to is, “Holy Shit,” which, holy shit, guys, if you think this is so totally pointless, then stop doing it. That’s the album up through the last four tracks.
Somehow, something happens in the last stretch of Searching… which is utterly surprising in the face of the largely trite, far-too-timely album that listeners have heard up to this point. On these last four tracks, Against Me! Get great. Better than that, they get important. “Even At Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most (The Roller)” is another song about Against Me!, another self criticism, but it’s a great song, more energetic and melodic, more pumped up than anything which has preceded it. The song’s coda is “they’re just waiting to tear us apart,” which, given the song in question, no we’re not, because this one’s pretty good.
“Problems” takes a different tactic than past songs. As I said prior, the best of Against Me!’s political songs are not those that are specific, they are those that get at larger issues or emotions. Problems is one such song. Starting with a scene of impending disaster, of stockpiling goods and of people taking precautionary measures, by the end of the first verse, we realize the disaster is Gabel. He see’s himself “losing semblance of coherence to a former self” and he lowers his voice just a little bit when he sings, “You know I am becoming the choices we’re making.” The metaphor works well, relating the changing of a rock solid ideology to the preparations for- and rebuilding after a natural disaster. It’s another song which is open-ended, not proposing a solution to the dread that comes from realizing your ideas are fading. Much moreso than in the songs where Tom Gabel just shit-talks his own band, the struggle in “Problems” feels empathetic.
The penultimate song is Tom Gabel’s last sermon to the punk world. It’s another one of those “this is where we’re going” songs. Understandably, Gabel realized his ambitions were getting to big for the reactionary, insular, only vaguely-political scene that had previously been his muse and base. “Don’t Lose Touch” is how the smartest punk would say goodbye. It’s worth looking at that the song in the context of its music video, which is just as good as the song itself, though far more subtle. So watch that, and then read this.
There are exactly 2 things in the music video which are worth noting, beyond Gabel’s awesome facial expressions. The first is, well, Gabel’s awesome facial expression at the moment when he sings the line “maybe there’s something wrong with the audience.” There is no doubt in his mind, and he wants to make it perfectly clear, that while the songs themselves do hold some of the blame for preaching to a choir, he holds the choir in absolutely contempt.
The other thing to make note of in this video is that it might very well have been shot backwards. At :32, the camera focuses on a broken beer bottle and rorschach looking splat on the floor. At 2:40, we see that beer bottle materialize from it’s shards and prop itself back onto an amp. It is the only stylistic choice in the whole video, the only thing that is amiss. Careful observers (probably me, a stoned teenager in Florida, and somebody who still puts on their resume that they wrote reviews for Buddyhead) have gotta wonder about this. I’d offer this interpretation of it- it doesn’t matter whether the video was shot in reverse or not, and it would be impossible to know because of the quick camera movement (despite it being a fairly conventional music video of a band playing in a practice space, the camera never stays on any shot for more than a second or two). And I think that’s the larger metaphor- there’s something going on you can’t quite be certain of, but you’re too easily distracted to really do anything about it. It’s a song about the punk scene Against Me! were leaving, it’s a song about Against Me! themselves, and it’s a song about the precarious niche that Against Me! were moving into with this album (the lyric is “manipulation in rock music/fucking nausea” not ” manipulation in punk music”).
Which brings us to the album’s final song, the absolute best one that Against Me! have written thus far in their career. The title track to their third album is such a commandingly good song because it attempts something the band has run away from in the past- earnestness. The reason Against Me! were so reluctant to genuinely protest things, to write songs about specific causes and urge people to act is that they see how quickly that can devolve into dogmatic sloganeering. This is a band too smart for stump speeches. On “Searching For a Former Clarity” (the song) they risk exactly that. The song begins with a quiet drumbeat and Gabel singing the phrase “No the doctors didn’t tell you/that you were dying.”
The brilliance of the song comes from it’s naturalistic narrative. There are no poetic flourishes nor moments when Gabel creates distance between his own words/thoughts and the subject of the song. And so when Gabel sings, “Despite everyone you ever meet or ever love/In the end, will you be all alone?”, there’s more fear of that than there is of the police state, of nuclear holocaust, of our terribly patriarchal society.
We follow the patient from lucid to near-comatose, hear them get worse, thinner, with discolored skin and blackened teeth. And yet they remain defiant and alive, hoping to keep thinking until they pass, a goal Gable respects and tries to document. It’s that closing which floors me though, that last verse, eulogistic and breif, the calm which ends the song. We do not see the song’s subject’s death. We end with the subject’s last thought, a sense of finality which had been previously resisted but which now enters into the dying’s mind.
Let this be the end
Let this be the last song
Let this be the end
Let all be forgiven
The politics in this song are fiercely personal. There is no question in my mind this song was written for and about one person. It’s strength lies in the band’s presentation, which demands full attention, offers no dogma and ends the only way it could- with a lapse.
I don’t want to write about the band’s major label debut, New Wave, because it is terrible. But, I guess, to explain what comes afterwards, I have to. New Wave is an album that makes me uncomfortable. This is partially because it sounds terrible, splitting the difference between a bad Foo Fighters records and that film that gets left on your teeth after you eat too much movie theater popcorn. Butch Vig, alt-rock juggernaut, makes the record sound big. Far too big, overinflated to the point where it looks misshapen and is moments away from bursting. If “Don’t Lose Touch” was a classy and intelligent goodbye to the punk scene, this was the band getting drunk at the punk scenes marriage to that cute record store girl and flipping over tables and shouting profanities over the vows.
But it’s more than the sounds that make New Wave terrible because, with no offense meant to the band themselves, it was always what came out of Tom Gabel’s mouth which made Against Me! work. And here, nothing does. He kinda says fuck-you to major labels in “Stop!” but keeps it vague enough that it doesn’t register. He kinda tries the storytelling thing on “Thrash Unreal,” but isn’t a good enough songwriter to muster anything more than “No mother ever dreams that her daughters gonna grow up to be a junkie.” There’s none of the detail or kindness or care which made a song like “Searching for a Former Clarity” so great. I could continue to go through, track by track, but the truth is, to my ears, there’s no track on this album which says a damn thing.
I gave up on the band, until I saw the video for “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” from their most recent album, White Crosses. Both the song and the video perplex and depress me. You can tell what it’s about from the title- Gabel waxing nostalgic (or not) about his former radical affiliations. Here he looks back at the scene in a surprisingly rigid and conservative manner. Whereas Gabel’s past critiques of the punk scene concerned the scene itself, the half-formed politics, the us vs. them mentality, the conforming-against-conformity part of it, here Gabel equates the whole radical-left belief-structure with this juvenile punk scene. In this song, there is no difference between the punks who confuse the A-team logo for the Anarchy symbol (and, hey, I’m not saying I didn’t get them mixed up back in the day) and anarchism as a belief system.
I mean, the last non-chorus lyrics of the song is “I was a teenage anarchist/The revolution was a lie.”
Now, I’m not an anarchist, and don’t really mind if Gabel knocks the whole movement. My problem here is ideological. Gabel tears down, but for the first time, he’s not building anything. The irony here is that, while I was never one for the specificity of Against Me!’s timely political songs, I vastly prefer them to White Crosses’ pronouncements of the death of ideals. The reason for this is if you’ve got ideals, even if they’re flawed, then you’ve got something to go on. If all you’ve got is a dearth of ideals, a black hole of a future, then, well, what’s next?
And the video? It shows police chasing then beating up a crust punk for three minutes. It’ll be three minutes where you’re expecting something else to happen, and nothing does. Up through White Crosses, Against Me! made it pretty clear where they were going. “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” leaves the impression that the band has no idea what follows.