10 years ago as I write this Floridian punk rockers Against Me! released an album that was, for better or worse, to become a landmark one in their career, New Wave.
Following something of a falling out with indie label Fat Wreck Chords over their Searching For A Former Clarity record the band signed a deal with a major label, Sire, for their fourth (and then fifth) albums.
This instantly set them apart not only from the anarcho-punk scene they originally came from (though to many there even Fat Wreck had been too big a move) but also from their fans who had followed the band’s first three albums to whom a major label was seen as a hugely controversial move.
The whys and wherefores of all of this (from at least one perspective) are covered in Laura Jane Grace’s autobiography, Tranny, so here I’m going to focus more on the record itself.
From the moment it begins its clear that New Wave has a bigger production side to it, and with Butch Vig behind the desk that’s not a surprise. What it does though right away is hint at the difference between the outlook of the band and the plans of the Sire executives.
While the band, led by chief songwriter Grace (then known as Thomas Gabel), kept at least a semblance of their sociopolitical outlook, they had added to that an embittered streak focussing on the aforementioned punk ideals, the notion of ‘selling out’ and the criticisms they had gained from longstanding fans, there’s a strong sense that what Sire were looking for was the next generation of Foo Fighters.
While this gives the whole record something of a conflicted edge the dangerous side of the music gets lost in the deeper production, stifling what could have been a very impressive set of songs highlighting the ever-present clash between art and commerce. Title track New Wave, Up The Cuts and the supremely catchy Stop! particularly vocalise this, but it is a theme bubbling under throughout.
Politics remains a strong aspect of the lyrics, possibly in a slightly more abstract sense than in the past, but White People For Peace and Americans Abroad both have political overtones with the first dealing with war and protest singers and the second feeling like a very aware look at global Americanisation from the point of view of the band on tour.
What all this suggests is that there are some good songs on the record and, in many ways it does continue where Searching… had left off two years previously, with the band developing a slightly poppier and more accessible tone while still having plenty to say, it’s just this came across far better with a slightly less ‘over produced’ sound.
That said a couple of tracks really stand out. The first is Thrash Unreal, the album’s second single, that takes the kind of topics often dealt with in teen pop punk but throws them askance issuing something of a warning of increasingly youthful excess but finally standing up as a celebration of teenage rebellion (with a very dark edge).
The other stand out track is the albums closer, The Ocean, that uses the advanced production for all its worth to create a deep and atmospheric piece that delves deeper than ever before into the Grace’s psyche and feelings in a way that has since become something of a premonition for not just the future of the band but her personal life as well (loosely anyway).
This all leaves New Wave as something of a transitional record in Against Me!’s career, lacking some of the danger of the past and hinting at a possible more ‘corporate rock’ future that never really emerged (thankfully).
The follow-up, White Crosses, while also featuring some great songs also felt somewhat disconnected and eventually almost led to the collapse of the band before their next landmark moment on Transgender Dysphoria Blues that saw them take many aspects of what they were before but become something new and certainly become about as far removed from being the next Foo Fighters as a band could get while still playing pop-tinged punk rock.