Travis in Vain


Tim Armstrong is a cornball. He croaks with the desperate gregariousness of a guy who’s seen the scruffy B-movie urchin lurking within every spare-changing teenpunk, every runaway trick-turning single mom, every scrap of junkie refuse washed up in the gutters of urban America—a guy driven to give each last lost kid a hug, a cigarette, and a not wholly accurate critique of the mechanics of global capitalism. Were his ideals just slightly warped he could use his Strummerly indifference toward consonants to commit crimes of sincerity as heinous as those of George W. Bush or even Chris E. Carrabba. And that’s why “Travis Bickle” gives me the icy shudders.

Nothing wrong with a bit of the ultraviolence—”Dave Courtney” is a high-stepping descent into the Brit underworld that has me licking fresh blood off my lips. And I’m not asking for political insight at the level of Chomsky or even NOFX—the clichéd anti-consumerism of “Born Frustrated” (“Is this human freedom/Hedonistic excess”) is just the ticket for those weekday nights when you got nothing better to do than harangue that cute cashier at Hot Topic. But “Travis Bickle” lacks even the ambivalence of the Clash’s own iffy descent into Taxi Driver paranoia, “Red Angel Dragnet.” It isn’t just the apparent unselfconsciousness with which Armstrong slides into Bickle’s skin that’s unsettling; it’s how little he has to alter his persona to pull it off. The righteous champion of degraded purity is the embodiment of Rancid’s sentimental worldview carried to its bitter, lunatic extreme.

So, yeah, maybe after a decade, a little more political insight—or just evident forethought—wouldn’t hurt Rancid none. True, some topics are best approached without ideological baggage—three years ago “Rwanda” was such a rousing anthem because, faced with a situation that all but baffled analysis, the band simply declared their common humanity with the victims. Rancid head back to Africa on Indestructible, but “Ivory Coast,” a confused tale of a New Year’s Eve suspension of curfew during civil war isn’t much more than a post-colonial “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” The lyric booklet confirms my suspicions regarding their fuzzy theoretical underpinnings, with explanatory intros such as “Freedom of speech is a luxury that everyone should be given no matter the circumstances.” “Luxury”? “Given”? We’re not talking midnight basketball here, guys. Know your rights—or at least know “Know Your Rights.”

Then again, Mistuh Strummuh, he dead. The sixth Rancid album is where those tiresome Clash comparisons finally start getting instructive, because Clash #6, a/k/a Cut the Crap, while hardly crap, didn’t quite cut it—hard to maintain the illusion of camaraderie when you’re outsourcing your guitar parts. In its finest moments, a band isn’t just a bunch of guys starting and stopping together in roughly the same key, but an image of “solidarity on the razor’s edge,” to cop a phrase from Indestructible‘s “Start Now”—one that offers us the hope (maybe the illusion) that we’re not doomed to strive in perpetual isolation from each other. And with a half-dozen records down, Rancid are nothing if not in this together.

“And I kno-o-o-w”—in the title (and opening) track, Armstrong’s warble valiantly shades microtonal deviations around his intended note to compose a shaky vocal silhouette as guitar chords doggedly descend, leaving him suspended like Wile E. Coyote over a canyon. Then his mates’ voices buoy him with their collective voice—”I’m indestructible”—transforming an individual protestation into an anthem of community. After the omnivorous Life Won’t Wait, which set out to re-cover all the ground punk had previously explored, and Rancid, which mashed that variety into a full-speed blare, Indestructible is a sort of plateau—maybe even poppier than . . . And Out Come the Wolves, it cruises briskly rather than racing forward, the work of a band that’s in this for the long haul.

Or at least that’s the impression Rancid seem to want to make. Nothing speeds a fella back to his boys like the indifference of a good woman, and you don’t need to know that Armstrong’s wife, Brody from the Distillers, left him this year to sense that somebody didn’t stand by him, no way. Though its chorus is general enough, the jaunty “Fall Back Down” is about getting dumped and relying on your buddies to catch you. Armstrong puts his trust in the surge of the music, segueing from the regretful “There’s a ghost band girl playing our song” into the defiant “If you lose me, girl, you lose a good thing” less with bitterness than with a need to reassert his self-worth. If he seems to testify a bit too loudly, too insistently, we can only hope he’s more disturbed by his attraction to Taxi Driver‘s cartoon of extreme alienation than he otherwise lets on.