Anti-Flag - American Fall (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


American Fall (2017)


I’ve noticed that, whenever I write about Anti-Flag, there’s a lot of haters that come out of the woodworks. While they certainly have their supporters, their detractors are angry and loud. I think there are a few reasons for this, including the fact that some people have gotten sick of them, and that others don’t like the gradual shift from hardcore to pop-punk that their music has taken. I think the reason I’m immune to this is that I haven’t been listening to them for very long. The first time, back in high school, when one of the other punk kids in school handed me his discman and insisted I check out this new song from a band called Anti-Flag and I heard “You Gotta Die for the Government,” I thought “This is the dumbest, most oversimplified political rant I’ve ever heard.” So for over a decade, I refused to listen to Anti-Flag, and I didn’t get to hear them evolve into something much better than their first big song. Then, just two years ago, I woke up one day and I had the craving to hear something very specific: I wanted something political, released recently, with a pop-punk sound, but which doesn’t sound exactly like all the other pop-punk out there. I don’t know what I searched online to find this, but I turned up an album that hit all the requirements I was looking for: Anti-Flag’s American Spring. I figured that maybe it was time to put aside my long held prejudice, and check out this album. From the opening riffs of “A Fabled World” I fell in love with the perfect pop hooks over the furious guitars and sharp, intelligent political lyrics. I was so hooked that I went on an Anti-Flag binge to listen to most of their older albums. And, personally, I don’t mind that they’ve become more of a pop-punk band, because I like that, and I’m happy with them doing whatever they need to to get their important messages out there. I agree with (almost) everything they have to say, and I want everyone to hear it.

American Fall—which, from the title, is pretty obviously a follow up to American Spring—is the first Anti-Flag album of the Trump era, which feels like the equivalent of Batman returning to Gotham at the end of Dark Knight Rises to burn his own symbol into the bridge before defeating Bane. (Except Bruce Wayne is the billionaire and Bane is the populist, but if you ignore all that it’s a perfect metaphor.) Well, that’s what we were all expecting it to be like, anyway. The finished product is certainly competent, but a bit uneven. There are really only two true duds on the album. Unfortunately, one of those is the opening track, “American Attraction,” which was also released as the album’s first single. The song features this low, droning, monotonous guitar that gives the song a sort of nu metal sound, and I frankly can’t think of anything that’s worse to sound like than nu metal. I find it utterly baffling that the first song they would release from this album, the much anticipated Trump-era Anti-Flag album, would be a remarkably dull song with some extremely vague lyrics about consumerism. Speaking of vague lyrics, the other big dud on the album is “Digital Blackout,” another nu metal-ish song along the lines of a Papa Roach tune, which doesn’t really make its meaning clear because, instead of the lyrics forming some sort of coherent narrative or argument, the lyrics are more just an assemblage of slogans that have the word “digital” in them. I think the song is about warfare becoming more digital and long distance. It could be about violent video games. Or it could just be about addictions to technology. One of those three things is something I give a crap about, the other two are not. As long as I’m discussing the cons of this album, can we discuss how hideous the artwork on this album is, especially compared to the gorgeous artwork on American Spring? American Fall’s cover is a whole bunch of stacks of dollar bills forming into an awkwardly shaped skull in front of the president’s desk in an oval office that’s somehow dimly lit despite the sunlight that is obviously pouring in through the windows. It’s ugly, it’s stupid, and it’s beneath them.

Okay, enough with the really bad parts of this album, and on to what works. The second track, “The Criminals” is the most direct attack on the Trump administration on the whole album, giving a detailed and nuanced critique. The chorus of “These are the days that test your heart and soul/Strap yourself in for the American fall” not only give the title for the album, but embrace the album’s primary themes. “When the Wall Falls” gives us something we don’t hear every day: an Anti-Flag ska song. Still, “When the Wall Falls” grabs hold of that ska sound and turns it on its head at times. There’s the strange way it quickly gets the two verses out of the way to focus on instrumental parts and repeating the chorus, and there’s a bizarre organ solo in the middle of the song that sounds like something you’d hear at a hockey game during intermission. But as quirky as the song gets, it all manages to gel together into a really catchy, fun, and fierce song.

Anti-Flag have always been big Clash fans, as evidenced by live shows they’ve done exclusively of Clash covers, as well as their Complete Control Recording Sessions record where they covered several Clash songs (although, strangely enough, they didn’t actually cover “Complete Control.”) American Fall shows probably their most Clash influence since 2009’s The People or the Gun. “Trouble Follows Me”—another rarity in the Anti-Flag catalogue ini that it’s a non-political song—is the first track to demonstrate this, with a short, punchy Clash style chord progression, a call-and-response chorus reminiscent of “London Burning,” and a guitar riff that sounds distinctly like something out of the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law.” The song’s breakdown switches up the song’s narrative completely, shifting from first person storytelling to third person, and gives us something that sounds like it’s straight out of Sandinista! with Chris No. 2 on backing vocals repeating “she said” in his breathiest Mick Jones impression. Of course, no song on the album shows Anti-Flag’s Clash influence better than “I Came. I Saw. I Believed.” which is a very obvious play on The Clash’s “Koka Kola,” in a way that they clearly wanted you to pick up on so it sounds more like a tribute than plagiarism. It even throws in the random phrase “passion the fashion” in the middle of the lyrics, a reference to a Clash slogan that Joe Strummer used to stencil on his jacket, as well as a reference to Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash by Pat Gilbert, the single best Clash biography in existence.

“Finish What We Started” always tricks me into thinking I’ve accidentally skipped back to the beginning of “Trouble Follows Me” because it opens in a similar key with a similar beat and bass line, but quickly manages to differentiate itself. The song is about examining your own mind and your own values to see the ways in which you, yourself, are problematic. The chorus goes “Because a cop lives/Inside of all our heads/We’re gonna kill him dead/We’re gonna finish what we started” then repeats over again replacing “cop” with “boss.” While it’s a good sentiment, it’s slightly marred by the fact that the gang vocals on the chorus distort what the lyrics are and it ends up sounding like “We’re gonna give him head/We’re gonna finish what we started.” (I pointed this out on Twitter and Chris No. 2 liked my tweet about it, which makes me suspect that he was just liking every tweet about the new album without reading them.) Still, “Finish What We Started has an excellent message and is catchy as hell.

“Liar” is a rollicking fun song, but I can’t say I understand what it’s supposed to mean. The repeated phrase “Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme chemiicals” at first made me think the song was some sort of ableist tirade against much needed psychological medications, a common song topic I always find highly offensive. But the rest of the lyrics don’t support that interpretation, especially the lines in the chorus of “I'll never trust you, you're just a liar/Closing the border of the fallen empire” which sound more like a reference to Trump’s border wall. So I’m left confused by the meaning to this one, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.

“Racists” is one of my favorite songs on the album. It was originally released to YouTube in August in direct response to the infamous white nationalist protest and counter protest in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a confederate statue that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, an anti-Nazi protester who was murdered by a white supremacist who drove a car directly into a crowd of people. The incident became notorious around the country for signaling the return of white supremacist activity in America. What better time for Anti-Flag to put out their most straightforward anti-racist track. What I love about “Racists” is that it’s a very standard pop-punk song that you would expect to have lyrics about a lost love or a breakup. Instead, Anti-Flag talks about, you guessed it, racism. But while many punk songs that are anti-racist tend to paint in very broad strokes, “Racists” gets down in the details, explaining, line by line, all the racist attitudes held by people in 2017 who don’t think they’re racist. It’s a brilliant call out that leaves no room for ambiguity on the topic.

The last two tracks, “Throw it Away” and “Casualty” are decent songs on their own, but fit together like puzzle pieces making them better as a pair than they are as individual songs. “Throw it Away” is a slow and low, dark track that ends on a line that doesn’t really feel like it’s ended. It almost invites the song to continue, especially since the same line was followed by a brief pause earlier in the song, only to be picked up a few seconds later. So when “Throw it Away” ends as if on an open ended question and “Casualty” comes in a few moments later, it sounds like the same song is just continuing on. The key of the song has changed, but there are enough similarities to be able to buy this as just a shift within one song instead of two separate songs. In that way, “Throw it Away” works as more of an intro to “Casualty.” “Casualty” couldn’t even really be called a pop-punk song. It would be more accurate to say that it’s a pop-alternative song. And while that might scare off those who still mourn for the days when Anti-Flag was a hardcore band, those of us who enjoy Anti-Flag’s pop side will really appreciate “Casualty.”

So, Anti-Flag’s first album of the Trump era is certainly flawed. Rather than feeling like that scene in Dark Knight Rises that I described above, it’s more like that scene from Dark Knight Rises but if Batman were replaced by Darkwing Duck. (Which, for the record, is now totally a movie I want to see.) Anti-Flag provides their normal political literacy and insight into making some very astute critiques of the most frightening political era of American history, but sometimes they get sidetracked by swinging for low hanging fruit that nobody is all that interested in right now. While some of these songs may be forgotten as quickly as they were recorded, there are definitely a lot of great songs that belong amongst Anti-Flag’s greatest hits.