“The revolution was a lie” is my current favorite of the many realizations to escape through Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel’s (very) clenched teeth. And he’s pissed about it, which befits a reformed punk anarchist who has mellowed enough to embrace major-label compromise, acoustic-guitar-plus-harmonica solo EPs, and the blissful Dorito bite of an oft-repeated “Whooo-ooooo-oooooa” chorus. If the Western world has to choke on its own gross national product, the sound might as well be catchy. The revolution was supposed to be catchy.
What’s so jarring about Against Me!’s new record, White Crosses, is how nothing in 2010 sounds quite like it: It has as little in common with 3OH!3 as it does with Vampire Weekend. And yet it’s one of those incredibly useful anomalies, like Weezer’s blue album in the midst of grunge, or Los Lobos roots-rocking over new wave. Ten years ago, we would’ve called it generic (though like all punkoid upstarts, 10 years ago, Against Me! were generic). But today, it’s nothing short of a revelation, a strong message to Lady Gaga and, um, chillwave that not only will power chords never die, but at least one band will always be around to prove they don’t suck, either: The Gainesville foursome offer those chords in comforting order at an unchallenging tempo, coaxing out your chorus-singing impulses.
And with Nevermind producer Butch Vig in tow once again to follow up 2007’s Spin year-end-topping masterpiece, New Wave, they detonate one such chorus after another: “Suffocation! Modern life in the Western world!” “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” “What God doesn’t give to you/You’ve got to go and get for yourself.” They all burst from Gabel’s throat with the crack of a line drive, and, this time, he brought back-up: The “Badlands” pianos and glockenspiels that propel “Because of the Shame” punch as hard as anything this deeply guitar-centric band has forced through an amp. As for those guitars, they now boast greater variety: The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on “Spanish Moss,” jangly Cure action between Robert McNamara critiques on “High Pressure Low,” and Billy Zoom–joins-Queen glamabilly on “Rapid Decompression” all adding color and granularity to the sheer thickness that overtakes eight spotless rockers and two earned slow ones.
The lyrics survive the usual signs of growth, like specific Floridian signifiers in a title track that apparently refers to headstones for aborted fetuses (“I want to smash them all”) and complex-for-punk compassion in “Ache With Me” (“I’ve got no judgment for you”). The real story is the harmonies, the almost touching dedication on display to overstuffing these tunes with melodic ideas, a largesse we thought was exhausted back when a&r guys could charge bowls of coke to the accounts of unrecoupable bands. And yet White Crosses is all shiny and fresh and proudly expedient, without proving a thing except that Against Me! are fully capable of doing it again. One could even see them scoring a stray hit with “We’re Breaking Up” (has there ever been more commiseration appeal than “We used to like all the same bands/We used to have all the same friends?”), though probably not. It’s hard to imagine Gabel’s typically overanalytical syllable count (“The dy-NAM-ic in the re-LA-tion-ship never changes”) catching hold on what passes for radio. To which he can only shrug: “These are the only words I have.”
Against Me! play the Williamsburg Waterfront June 23