No one is ever going to discuss White Crosses — or any other record Against Me! will ever produce, for that matter — without invoking that ugly term: sellout. As in, Did Against Me! sell out by making this record? Is this a sellout record? Does Tom Gabel still care about punk rock, or is he just a big phony sellout? Was it when Butch Vig started producing them that they sold out, or was it when Spin named New Wave the best album of 2007? Will they ever go back to their old sound, or will they keep being a bunch of sellouts? (And what about anarchy!?)
It’s a precarious argument to start, one that usually gives way to overzealous fandom, pointer fingers and dubious justification, but it touches everything Against Me! does these days. They started as an aggressive folk-tinged punk band, tossing out three albums and a mess of EPs before signing to Sire, where they quickly smoothed up their sound to more clearly feature singer Tom Gabel’s impressive rock voice. Now, they sound like a band that could open for a big modern-rock arena act like the Foo Fighters or the Killers and have expanded their fanbase outside of the diehards who got on board when Gabel was still an angry teenager. But Gabel is going to celebrate his 30th birthday this year, and he just had his first child. He’s an adult, and that’s what a lot of this record is about: moving on.
The strongest songs on the album are about getting past your youth, like the semi-excellent “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” which is about Gabel’s former days as a (guess!) teenage anarchist, when he got beaten up by cops, dropped out of high school and started zines. But he’s older and more jaded, and through a nostalgic refrain of “Do you remember/ When you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire” over a brash, chunky mash of distorted guitars, he reminisces bitterly about all the broken dreams of the scene. The slow acoustic shuffle of “Ache With Me” finds Gabel finding common misery in another punk grown up, thinking about all the things they’ll never be — an especially poignant lyrical concept for a guy who started as an anarchist punk and is now a dad making records for MTV.
There’s a lot of harmonizing on this record, which is honestly a little weird. They’ve always trafficked in those fist-pumping whoas that gets crowds surfing and drunk, but it’s never sounded as clean. And it’s weird to be listening to an Against Me! track because of how pretty it sounds, not because it’s being yelled at you over and over again — a mental block that probably causes all those older fans to scream when they hear the Springsteen outtake of “Because Of The Shame” or the super melodic chorus of “High Pressure Low,” the track that best showcases the post-hardcore influence of new drummer George Rebelo, formerly of Hot Water Music. (Long-time drummer Warren Oakes left after eight years to start a restaurant.) Some of the lyrics might seem cheesy, too, but Gabel has never been an especially articulate lyricist: He writes lyrics about broad feelings as earnestly as possible, and he won us over by yelling his head off. But does it matter where he’s singing or screaming?
Well, yeah. The bummer is that White Crosses doesn’t sound very interesting. Sonically, it’s not too far from most things you’d find on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts: distorted guitars, barely there solos, big clear drum fills. A lot of the second half blends together, and it’s hard to imagine many fans getting excited for a song like “Bob Dylan Dream,” which starts off with a harmonica and Gabel singing, “I dreamed Bob Dylan was a friend of mine.” Look, forget the sellout chatter. It’s ridiculous to hold Gabel to the standards he lived by when he was 17 — yes, even if he used to be militant about them. But it’s not ridiculous to expect him to evolve into a more nuanced songwriter, and while White Crosses has a few stellar songs, it lets down as a complete record. Anarchy will have to wait a little longer.