Against Me! made the jump to major record label Sire in 2007. It was then that they released their album “New Wave”, which caught the attention of a whole new fan base and earned critical acclaim from just about everyone who reviewed it (including myself). It was clear at the time that Against Me! was a punk band with heart and a workmanlike ethos that put them in league to become stadium-sized giants as perhaps a new generation’s Bruce Springsteen. “New Wave” signaled an advancement not only for the band, but for punk rock in general, with a movement towards earnest and smartly composed songs that went beyond your traditional 3-chord, verse-chorus-verse structure. These were songs about tough times and tough people, just trying to earn a buck in a frustrated America that had lost its way. Though the recession hadn’t yet hit, somehow the songs still felt like they spoke to the mood of not only the country but the world in general, weary and trying to scrape by. The songs themselves weren’t raw and dirty punk tunes, but rather smooth anthems to ignite the disenfranchised. It was also the album that alienated much of the band’s early fans, who felt they were trading in their hardcore roots to sell out and go “mainstream”. If those fans had any hope that Against Me! would return to their rough-edged beginnings, all hope is now completely dashed with the release of their new album “White Crosses” this week.
Apparently Against Me! liked the raves and increased fan base that “New Wave” provided them, which is why “White Crosses” feels cut from a similar cloth. There’s still a strong Springsteen-leaning base, and as far as anthems go, you could do a whole lot worse than the opening title track followed by first single “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”. Both are energized, big songs that can play really well with big crowds. Lots of devil horns and jumping around, even if they are far less rebellious and tough-sounding than most of the older Against Me! material. After those first two tracks though, things start to get a little scary. Opening with some light piano (?!) and developing into a chorus that feels like it’s ripping off Springsteen’s “Born to Run” almost directly, “Because of the Shame” is so light and friendly I almost feel like they took the meaning of its title literally. That being said, it’s still surprisingly enjoyable and memorable, so hopefully the softer nature of the song doesn’t turn you off too much. The thing is, this easy and breezy version of the band sticks around for the majority of “White Crosses”, pulling them even farther in the opposite direction from their early stuff than ever before. The middle of the album is peppered with ballads that primarily require Tom Gabel to actually sing rather than scream his moral outrage, and at some point Against Me! begins to sound like they’re handicapping themselves. The song “Ache With Me” is a simplistic acoustic ballad complete with vocal harmonies and a backing symphony, and that girl you know who likes Switchfoot or Lifehouse will like this too. Or maybe it’s just a product of getting older and wanting to create songs that aren’t so hotly charged in both tempo and lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, Gabel may have run out of meaningful things to say, as cliches and big themes are what he sings about all over the album. Politics, once a very hot topic for the band, are all but absent across the album, replaced by personal stories of childhood, romance and the calmer realities of today. The choruses are especially hurt by this, but really they work to the band’s advantage when it comes to having crowds sing along with them. Even if you haven’t heard a single song on this new album, if they play the new stuff live you should be able to join in on the hooks after the first time through.
Should you decide to buy “White Crosses”, the deluxe edition may be the way to go. There are four bonus tracks on that version, and by and at least two of them are better than majority of the regular album. At the very least,.a song like “Bob Dylan Dream” is interesting because it incorporates the lo-fi recording style and trademark harmonica of Dylan himself, while Gabel talks about what his life might be like were he friends with the man. Perhaps the most telling and best of the bonus tracks though is “One By One”, which is an angry punk song closest to what the band used to do. There’s a part in which Gabel says, “Where do we go from here/when the rebels lose the spirit of rebellion?/You’ve got nowhere left to go”. More than likely he wasn’t speaking about himself or his band, but the music on “White Crosses” seems to suggest otherwise. It’s the sound of a band kicking its past to the curb in favor of a future in which they play big stadiums and make a somewhat decent buck to support their families. Everybody in the band is right around 30 years old, and while that’s still a very young age by most standards, the body just doesn’t keep up as well when you’re leaving blood and sweat all over the stage each night. That, and with age you grow wiser and that rebellious spirit you once had may seem like a foolish choice now. Whatever the reason, Against Me! have continued to mellow, even moreso than on “New Wave” to pander to their newer, larger fan base that came along with that last record. “White Crosses” is easy to listen to, and largely forgettable. It starts off with a healthy bang but quickly descends into something blander and mediocre. Those who’ve discovered the band through “New Wave” and haven’t really investigated their back catalogue might still find plenty to like with this new album, but everyone else might want to beware for there’s much lighter fare ahead.