Beneath every great rivalry, there is always a line of mutual respect. For the most part. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; Jack and Sawyer; Bill and Hillary Clinton. The only intense rivalry that raises a few questions are fans of Against Me. There are those who believe the band to be a shell of their former selves, and those who’ve grown right alongside them. It’s a fierce competition that is about as pointless as that time Emmanuelle Lewis and Gary Coleman were pitted against one another: there’s no clear winner, because they are both adorable!
Anyone who has half-a-brain and has listened to Against Me for some time knows they were born to be who they are now. Now in his 30’s, Tom Gabel is able to coyley pen songs like “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” with a bit of extensive knowledge for what he said then versus what’s come to him now. Forget Reinventing Axl Rose — Against Me is reinventing Tom Gabel. White Crosses is certainly their most auspicious yet “safe” affair, but after the critically-acclaimed New Wave, where else could the band go? Like Green Day did last year, the band conducted a massively appealing mainstream rock album and went even bigger in order to do what they’d love to do: sell out stadiums across the world. Can you blame a rock band for just wanting to write songs that sound huge and speak to a more general consensus than past tunes have? (Before you comment, it’s rhetorical!)
Butch Vig is back behind the boards this time around and merely asks the band to take their patented sound, but have it knock down a few brick walls in the process. Gabel has been incredibly vocal about his thought-process during the album’s recording sessions, and with Tom Petty on the mind, it’s clear he and his bandmates wanted to record an album that sounds, well, huge. The title track isn’t exactly the best start out of the gate (b-side “One By One” feels like it would have been a perfect introductory track), but the lead single (“Teenage Anarchist”) is everything that this band needs to say to both sides on this debate of whether or not the band is good anymore (not rhetorical). Not only is it an extensive middle finger salute to those who refuse to follow the band anymore, but it’s a clear indication of Gabel admitting he’s changed quite a bit since he started the band. He’s still just as angry & confused as ever before, however the clear difference is, he doesn’t allow it to control his writing — which has always been the band’s main draw. Gabel is still fitting in as many words as humanly possible in each verse, and listen to “Suffocation” to hear his trademark Elvis-like swagger. Against Me have grown up, and as with any other punk band who writes anthems of anarchy, it’s a real agonizing change-up to swallow.
White Crosses is not the band’s finest hour, nor is it as vicious or startling as past albums. Ultimately, what makes it work is the integrity of the band simply being who they believe they are now. “Because of the Shame” could be a Born to Run b-side for all we know, spilling over with heartbreaking loss, and “Bamboo Bones” contains one of the most brilliant lines Gabel has ever murmured: “What God doesn’t give to you / You’ve got to go and get for yourself.” The strain in his voice doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s speaking to anyone but himself, and as beautiful a finale “Bitter Divisions” would have made, “Bamboo Bones” is far too wonderful to leave out of that spot.
New member George Rebelo, former drummer of Hot Water Music, makes his first appearance on this album and honestly adds a ton of grit to the entire dynamic of this record. Warren Oakes was a fine drummer and all, but Rebelo feels like he belongs on such a mammoth production. James Bowman and Andrew Seward also continue to develop their hard-work as the great balance that assist Gabel is giving the band their trademark sound. Vig’s production may be glossier than ever before, yet it just feels right that after all this time, five albums in… this is where Against Me have landed. “Ache With Me” is a dull attempt as a Van Morrison-esque ballad, and “Rapid Decompression” feels a little uncomfortable sandwiched between these tracks, but really? This record is like the final episode of LOST. Ever since Axl Rose came out, this is the penultimate conclusion as to where the band was going to peak. Hints of the last few records come out in snippets over the 36 minute runtime, and like any good Bad Company album, it feels nice, takes a few missteps, but eventually hugs your ears like you two have been best friends missing each other.
In all honesty, it’s a very safe output. The surprise is in just how much White Crossessucceeds at blurring the dividing line between punk rock ethos and boistrous radio rock. As previously mentioned, it doesn’t break new ground and will likely be a hotly debated topic between longtime fans who’ve thrown in the towel and those who are excited to see the evolution continue. The entire identity of the band has not irrevocably changed; it’s merely shifted. “Before you point your finger / before you cast your stones / take a look at yourself” Gabel shouts during “Rapid Decompression,” ironically the most ‘traditional’ song of the bunch. Perhaps the song is supposed to feel uneven there, seeing that the lyrics seem to touch upon familiar arguments and lead into the most inspiring song the band has written. Unlike New Wave, where the band spent a lot of time trying out new ideas (see: “The Ocean,” “Animal” and “Bourne on the FM Waves of the Heart”) and mocking the “selling out” theory, White Crosses throws the self-deprication away for a chance to be as genuine as possible in front of a massive wall of sound.
Maybe, just maybe, Against Me is one step ahead of all of us. They know precisely what they’re doing and are just going out to do what Gabel says we all have to: go and get it for ourselves.