It has been a couple of years now since Gabel and his band Against Me! done a Chumbawumba -- their major label debut, New Wave was received fairly well by mainstream music critics, but for many long-time fans of the band, their relationship with Gabel was over. Heartbreaks aside, whatever you make of Gabel’s decision to join hands with a multinational corporation, he has -- at least musically -- redeemed himself with this, his latest offering: the Heart Burns EP.
Gabel's decision to release the EP under his own name is interesting, and without overanalyzing such a decision, it could be seen as an attempt by Gabel to distance himself, at least creatively, from the Against Me! brand. His desire to experiment with his music becomes immediately apparent as opener "Random Hearts" kicks off and we are greeted with a fistful of drum machine. I had assumed that the format for this release would be like The Acoustic EP -- but was refreshed to find that this was not so. While many members of the punk community openly wince at any form of electronic beat-making, as a fan of electropunk I have been conditioned to love it. "Random Hearts" is a song led heavily by its guitar-driven melody that builds up for each climatic chorus, with Gabel bringing the song to its conclusion as he sings "The only war you’ll ever know is what you see in a movie, suburban TV babies, we share the same accent -- American disillusion -- we’re in this together, random hearts that beat for each other, random hearts in a cruel cruel world."
There is a change of pace with the following track, "Conceptual Paths," which sees Gabel swap layered electric guitars for an acoustic and keys. The track is again held together by a simple drum beat and the minimalist format bodes well for a track that is led by a powerful set of lyrics.
"Cowards Sing at Night" sees the instrumentation stripped even further down, with Gabel returning to the simple one guitar, one vocal format where he is clearly at home. Current U.S. electoral hysteria has not missed Gabel, who uses this song to take a swipe at the man in a permanent 'war trance' -- John McCain -- who has seemingly built his entire campaign scaffold around the fact that he once served in Vietnam and was a P.O.W. during this time.
The acoustic and the percussion (this time not robotic) returns for "Amputations," which also includes ‘gang vocals’ and the first appearance of James Bowman on backings. A short but sweet foot-stomper, "Amputations" is essentially a protest song outraged at the idiocy of war that mourns the young, who, like cannon fodder, are enlisted to engage in imperialist warfare, where they face the horrors of conflict rather than the beauties of being young.
A full-band setup is present for "Anna Is a Stool Pigeon," which exudes a folk-rock vibe -- confirmed indeed by the presence of a harmonica. The song is held together by its lyrical content that re-tells the tale of the Sacramento Three, who were famously infiltrated and snitched upon by Anna, a ‘provocateur’ paid by the FBI.
The song with the widest array of instrumentation is sharply followed by the song with the least, which has Gabel take up the traditional folk format of just a lone acoustic guitar and voice. "Harsh Realms," a song that deals with the issue of alienation in the modern world, was portrayed in the corresponding video produced by Philippe Tremblay-Berberi through the use of the city as a backdrop -- a concrete jungle that never stops, always moving at lightning pace whether you like it or not; "It’s a harsh realm: don’t abandon me."
As the record reaches its conclusion, a heartbeat kicks in -- the backbone for "100 Years of War." A paranoid-sounding track that aches of a frustrated confusion and a feeling of powerlessness in a world seemingly void of any unified sense of humanity. A powerful sentiment that is articulated well by Gabel who has always excelled in his ability to express his emotion lyrically in such a context.
Despite initial reservations about this release, my expectations were shattered upon the first listen. For me, this is some of Gabel's best material since As the Eternal Cowboy. And while the two records are almost incomparable, there is an honesty and a truthfulness present on this set of songs that was so lacking on New Wave, and to an extent, on Searching for a Former Clarity. There is a feeling that this EP contains a passion that Gabel thought he had lost. Every song here wipes the floor with New Wave and one can only hope that Gabel continues to follow this creative path as opposed to the path he followed that led to the penning of "Stop!".