I wonder what Tim Armstrong thinks of Lily Allen. Armstrong’s band, Rancid, blew up during the mid-90s ska boom, partly because they had mohawks and stuff and partly because they were great, but also partly because of “Time Bomb,” a totally credible Farfisaed-out ska song and the band’s biggest hit ever. Most of the ska bands who made it to the radio during those years sold themselves through a sort of Southern-California mall-punk primary-color brightness, a novelty appeal that revealed itself through cute matching costumes and intentionally goofy 80s-pop covers. But Rancid played ska as a sort of broken-down working-class urban folk music, building on the late-70s British 2-Tone ska revival’s sad, ghostly blueprint, and they ended up with one of my favorite semi-forgotten radio nuggets of an era rich with them. But the ska bubble popped, soon becoming only slightly less unfashionable than zoot-suit swing-revival; a couple of years ago, members of the Killers and the Bravery were making fun of each other for having played in ska bands. The only band to muscle through the backlash and maintain pop success was No Doubt, and they did it by keeping all their bright bubblegum pep and by completely ditching all their ska signifiers, replacing them instead to nods toward dancehall and synth-pop and other more fashionable genres. Meanwhile, Rancid, who’d previously only toe-dipped into ska with “Time Bomb” and a couple of other songs, dove headlong into a sort of makeshift organic cosmopolitanism and recorded their masterpiece: 1998’s Life Won’t Wait, one of my favorite albums ever. On that album, the band recruited guest-appearances from Buju Banton and the Specials, and they toyed around with reggae and rap and soul and rockabilly, but their ska fixation was clearly the basis for all of it, and the band drove home the point further when they signed the Slackers and the Pietasters to their boutique label. I was hoping they’d continue reaching outward musically, but instead they viscerally yanked themselves back into lockstep bloody-knuckles gutter-punk shit. In 2000, they released a squalid knuckledragger of a self-titled album. When I saw them a year later, they didn’t play a single ska song. Armstrong slowly eased himself back into musical experimentation in the years after that, delivering a relaxed and pretty breakup album with Rancid’s Indestructible in 2003 and doing a couple of mixed-results punk-rap albums with his side project the Transplants. He also wrote some songs for Pink’s best album, which nobody bought. With every successive project, Armstrong’s one pop moment faded further into the past. And now he’s gone and recorded a solo album, slowly releasing the first five songs over the past six months. At least thus far, it’s a ska album, and Armstrong seems more comfortable than ever with his cultural obsolescence. It’s a good look.
Armstrong recorded A Poet’s Life with the LA band the Aggrolites, and it’ll be coming out later in the month. Already, though, five of the ten songs have leaked, and all of them are a sort of warm low-stakes rocksteady that suits Armstrong’s voice like an old sweater. After all, Operation Ivy, Armstrong’s first band, was always the measuring stick by which every other ska-punk was judged; he has as much of a right to this music as virtually anyone alive. More importantly, though, Armstrong’s garbled punch-drunk gurgle isn’t all that distant from patois, and it communicates righteous fury and wounded pathos just as well as any of Armstrong’s Jamaican idols. Virtually every one of these songs comes off as a resigned shrug; Armstrong sounds like he’s singing to himself more than anyone else. Lyrically, “Inner City Violence” is just as strident and evocative as any of Rancid’s vague political songs (“Violence sustained, civil liberties now destroyed / Constant intimidation brought on by force”), but Armstrong mumbles those lyrics so half-heartedly that “destroyed” and “force” actually sort of rhyme, and the rave-up sentiments of “Into Action” and “Take This City” feel heartbreakingly hollow. As always, to love Armstrong is to feel sorry for him; his marriage ended when he saw pictures of his wife kissing Josh Homme in Rolling Stone, and the Transplants broke up when the group’s other two members accused Armstrong of being too unreliable to work with. (They went on to form another group with Paul Wall instead. Way to trade up, dudes.) And so these new songs feel like steps in the right direction: Armstrong shrugging his shoulders and immersing himself in the music he loves, popular taste be damned. But these songs aren’t sad; “Into Action,” improbably enough, features Canadian teenpop chick Skye Sweetnam, and “Hold On” is a broken-romantic me-and-you-against-the-world love song like Rancid’s “Corazon de Oro.” Armstrong doesn’t sound bitter at the world passing him by; he sounds happy to still be alive. He turned 40 last year, and A Poet’s Life is shaping up to be an aging lifer’s joyous lament; those of us who spent our teenage years listening obsessively to Rancid knows that’s not a contradiction in terms.
Lately, Armstrong has been pulling a Prodigy, quietly releasing cheap quickie videos for his songs on YouTube. Five of those videos have leaked out, the last two just last week, and they’re all remarkably low-stakes affairs. All of them look exactly the same, using a sort of high-contrast grainy black-and-white videography that makes them look like the xeroxed photos that always end up on punk-show fliers. One has distressed stock war footage; another has shots of punk kids mugging for the camera. Most of them have punk-rock video-chicks fawning on Armstrong. All of them look like they were made for pocket change. And all of them are coated in a sort of hazy nostalgic glow, their old punk cliches invoked for the evocative rush that they bring rather than for whatever those cliches were originally supposed to say. Like the videos from Return of the Mac, they feel like an adjustment to a changing reality, a slowly-dawning comfort with the world as it is. With Return of the Mac, Prodigy went back to making the sort of music that I wish he would’ve never stopped doing. Thus far, A Poet’s Life isn’t quite like that; my favorite Rancid songs were never the ska songs. But it is a return to the sort of music that Armstrong himself has clearly always been most drawn to, and that’s just as much of a victory. I could be wrong, but I honestly think that Armstrong had long hoped to become an actual pop star; it’s why he worked with Pink and why he eventually signed to major labels with both Rancid and the Transplants after resisting for years. He knows that’s not going to happen now, and he seems to be OK with it. It’s a bit funny to see Armstrong making his capitulation statement just a little while after Lily Allen blew up with a record full of conversationally observational ska. I hope he doesn’t mind too much. I can’t imagine he does.