I remember the first time I met Against Me!, I was scheduled for an interview, and this was shortly after the release of ...Eternal Cowboy. The band was playing at a tiny little venue in Toronto, just a staircase away from a dimly lit pub. Even though I knew the band was fairly young, having listened to ...Axl Rose and particularly The Acoustic EP, I had an image formed in my head of a quartet of grizzled punk lifers, looking each day like they had spent the previous sleeping on a street corner.
The band itself didn't really match my mental image, and I was temporarily taken aback by the young band, who seemed to possess a musical maturity that belied their ages. I was scheduled for what the local Fat rep, Melanie Kaye, called a “round table” interview, which meant that I was supposed to trade off questions with other writers. Personally, I'm not terribly fond of these types of interviews, finding that my relatively quiet demeanor makes it difficult to interject frequently with questions. Only two of us had arrived at that point, the other looking like a slightly cleaner Keith Morris, and myself. The other interviewer was pretty aggressive but also pretty gracious, and gave me ample opportunity to ask some questions, very few of which were particularly insightful. Still, the interview went well enough and I had enough material for a story.
It wasn't until a week later that I learned that the sound check had drowned out the little material I had, making the interview completely inaudible. However, losing that interview was no great loss, particularly when compared to what I didn't even think to record: After our chat was over, I had a few moments to waste. My girlfriend was currently at the hospital, tending to a sick father who had just undergone an angioplasty, and I was to arrive there in about an hour. So I suggested to the band that I buy them a drink as we waited for our mutual obligations.
True to form, the band each bought the closest thing to a Guinness, a thick Irish stout that had the consistency of a milkshake; I bought a light beer, imagining that my drunk appearance at the hospital would probably be less than cordial. It wasn't until we sat down with our pints that I actually saw the real band; Tom, Warren and I sat and talked; we discussed the legacy of Johnny Cash who had passed away a few weeks earlier; we talked about the Clash, women, punk rock, anarchists and the vehement anger of the “anarchist” punks who slashed their tires, vandalized their van and generally attacked them at each venue of their tour. This wasn't a ploy for sympathy or something they hoped I would publish but the honest revelations of a bunch of guys sitting around drinking.
That image popped into my head last week as I stood in what Toby called a “bear bar” in San Francisco, a bar where he received a call from Tom describing their recent experience playing in front of thousands of people on their date with Green Day. I didn't hear the conversation, but apparently Tom felt that it went well but was nevertheless a daunting experience. This is doubtless, considering the band probably performed in front of more people that night then they drew on that entire first tour.
But the seemingly sudden rise of Against Me! is nothing if not deserved. Each album has seen the band reinvent itself, with the songwriting becoming more varied and more mature. A larger palette seemed to accompany each release, and new revelations with each word. The Acoustic EP was sparse, minimalistic and startlingly clear; Axl Rose brought about a bigger sound, but you could still hear the ringing of the guitar strings between each note. With Cowboy, the band brought even more to the table, with a louder, more dominating band.
With this release, the evolution of the band has certainly continued. Each track is startlingly dense and J.Robbins has given the band an almost impenetrable wall of sound. Unlike the simple shout-along melodies that adorned previous albums, ...Clarity demands repeated listens far more than any previous album. That's not to say the band has abandoned their crowd-energizing anthems though; tracks like “From Her Lips To God's Ears” with its chant of “Condoleeza!” will certainly have their share of audience participation.
When I first heard a few tracks from the album, my immediate reaction was to compare the band to the Replacements, and I think the comparison still stands; like Westerberg's seminal band, the band seems to incorporate punk rock, country and folk, but with Clarity it seems the band has finally managed to fuse these elements seamlessly in a single track. Songs like “Violence” and “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners” do this almost effortlessly (though I must confess that the latter disappoints a little with a somewhat annoying chorus, despite a great opening and confessional lyrics.)
With the exception of that track's chorus, however, the album is uniformly solid. Lyrically, the band is treading into more personal territory, with “Pretty Girls” and “How Low” addressing similar relationship territory to Cowboy's “Sink, Florida Sink.” Internal turmoil and self-loathing are also well represented, with songs like “How Low” and the title track showing Tom at his most painfully confessional.
The political feelings of the band are represented, but the band takes a far more individualistic tone, focusing lyrics on the effects of politics on real people. A track like “Justin” eschews complex political diatribes, instead discussing the Iraq war as it pertains to the recruiting, death and media coverage of a single soldier. As well, the events that were documented in last year's DVD are also addressed with many allusions to the dirty politics of the music business, a situation into which the band has been thrust far too violently.
Against Me! has quickly gone from a great band with a small but devoted fanbase to a large one, almost despite the band's efforts to grow gradually. Listening to the record, I still find it hard to believe that this album was written by some guy I sat around drinking with; it's ambitious, fully realized and truly special. It's also a conflicted record; it's filled with internal ruminations, raw emotions and a distancing wall of sound, but it is nevertheless their most thoughtful and accomplished piece of songwriting and a record that grows more rewarding with each listen.