Why You Can't Hear Against Me's Masterpiece
I love this cover
Here's something I won't be doing again anytime soon: paying actual money for the physical copy of a new major-label album. It's not like that's something I really do that often anyway, but I did it last week, dropping $14 (rather than the iTunes $10) on Against Me's New Wave because I wanted lyrics and liner notes. I used to really enjoy hitting up record stores every Tuesday afternoon to grab a couple of things off the new-release shelf. There's a certain fetishization of the physical object that's disappeared pretty quickly with downloading, and I miss it. I like skimming through the CD booklet and reading the credits, and I like waiting until the release date to hear the album in full for the first time rather than relying on dubious leaks. But I don't like doing all that stuff enough to justify paying $14 for a useless piece of plastic. Lately, major labels have been trying to halt their skid in sales by slapping copy-protection widgets on CDs that prevent anyone from playing them on a computer. If you're like me and you primarily listen to music on your computer or your iPod, that's a problem. It's been happening for a while; some copies of the last My Morning Jacket album famously included software that crashed some people's computers, and the new Linkin Park supposedly hasn't been working in computers either. But I hadn't actually had it happen to me until my computer refused to recognize New Wave. I can now say from personal experience that it's really frustrating to have this happen with something you paid for. You keep checking the CD, ejecting it and reinserting it, trying to figure out if something is wrong with your computer even after you figure out what's actually going on. I felt like an absolute chump for being dumb enough to fork over money for something I couldn't use. I've still only heard New Wave because I downloaded it illegally later that day. That's a shame; New Wave is a truly great album, and Sire Records is doing Against Me a grave disservice by preventing people from actually hearing the damn thing.
This is all doubly ridiculous when you consider that Against Me's fans are probably going to be looking for reasons to backlash against them already. New Wave is the band's first album for a major label, and that fact has dominated all the album's press just as it does every time a charged-up leftist political punk band signs with a corporate label. New Wave uses their new major-label money admirably; they hired Butch Vig to produce the thing and beefed up the widescreen anthemic punch that had already been pretty potent on the band's indie albums, and they made their already-huge choruses even bigger. On first listen, Against Me (not typing the exclamation point, sorry) don't sound all that different from gang-chant bruisers like the Dropkick Murphys, an impression the mass singalongs at their shows certainly reinforce. Upon closer inspection, though, they're actually a deeply idiosyncratic band. Frontman Tom Gabel has an amelodic nasal honk, and he deploys it with red-face intensity; you can practically hear the spittle-droplets hitting the mic. But his words are vivid, nonrhymic multisyllabic sprays that he only manages to fit into the pop-song structures through sheer force of exertion. And his lyrics are tortured and confused in ways that belie his larger-than-life choruses, so he ends up sounding like someone desperate for connection to something larger than him, someone who needs to know whether his I registers as a we. Lyrically and vocally, he sits on an uncomfortable but fascinating fulcrum between Greg Graffin and John Darnielle. His strident fury and his paralyzing self-consciousness don't work in spite of each other; each fuels the other, sort of like they did with someone else Vig once produced, albeit in very different ways.
New Wave is basically an album about itself: about the second-guessing and paranoia that come with signing a major-label contract that the band probably shouldn't have signed, about the frenzied struggle to stay moral in a system designed to make morality obsolete. On the album-opening title-track, Gabel takes his insecurity and longing and fear and turns them into something bigger than him: "We can define our own generation / Is there anyone on the receiving end?" On "Up the Cuts," the second track, he starts out singing about a sleepless night, an insomnia seemingly brought on by watching unoriginal videos on MTV: "Similar trends in camera technique and editing / Sync up the cuts to the bass drum kick"; later lyrics namecheck sales-declines and Maximum Rock N Roll. "White People for Peace" is a protest song about the futility of protest songs; it's the one where Gabel bleats "Protest songs!" on the chorus. On "Stop!," Gabel either condemns or fantasizes about the day-to-day details of the whirlwind jetset rock-star life; probably both. Other songs take that sort of piercing tension into more emo matters: futile lust on "Animal," breakup anxiety on "Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart," which features really pretty backing vocals from either Tegan or Sara from Tegan and Sara, I forget which. All that second-guessing, though, comes on these triumphant waves of music that drip with conviction even as Gabel's lyrics studiously avoid it. It's a complicated album, an album that seems to come from someone who's really, really not sure he's made all the right decisions.
Turns out he probably hasn't. If the crowd at their show with Mastodon last month was any indication, Against Me's audience is young. I'm guessing that a pretty huge percentage of that audience probably listens to its music exclusively on computers. If any of them actually end up making the same mistake as me and buying CD copies of New Wave, they aren't going to be happy. And it turns out Sire's plan didn't work anyway; New Wave debuted pretty far down this week's charts, surprisingly ending up below the new album from spiritual ancestors Bad Religion, who made their own inadvisable major-label deal fifteen years ago. It's enough to make me wonder whether the label didn't purposefully torpedo an album from a group that's so openly conflicted to be doing business with majors. In any case, that copy-protection bullshit shouldn't be enough to stop you from hearing New Wave. It's a really amazing album, and I'm sure you can figure out some way to download it.
Update: Someone at the label called me and assured me that most of the Against Me CDs work in computers and that I probably have a defective copy. I certainly hope that's true, but the fact that there could be any doubt at all is a pretty serious indictment of the way the record industry's been working lately.