Near the end of 2005’s Searching for a Former Clarity, Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel succinctly summed up his band’s blunt message: “Don’t lose touch,” he commanded in a hoarse all-ages holler — with reality, with integrity, with one another. Gabel is a folk-punk rabble-rouser in the frayed-and-furious tradition of Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, and Ted Leo; and for the past decade, he’s been writing songs about the struggle to stay active and earthbound in a culture hell-bent on medicated disengagement. Even more than your quintessential street rapper, Gabel is obsessed with keeping it real.
Fortunately, he’s also as concerned with keeping it entertaining. New Wave is Against Me!’s Butch Vig-produced major-label debut, and it sounds like it: Where the band’s three previous studio albums crackled with scrappy DIY brio, New Wave stomps like big-budget radio rock, all swarming guitars and gang-vocal thrust. As he did with Nirvana’s Nevermind, Vig both sweetens and strengthens Against Me!’s attack without sacrificing the band’s innate Raggedy Andy appeal.
Yet, while “Animal” and “Thrash Unreal” might persuade a Nickelback fan to pump his fist, Gabel pulls none of his punk-kid punches. Despite his new role as a cog in the corporate machine, the frontman remains supremely distrustful of the media-industrial complex. “I heard the hype about your band,” he sings in “Piss and Vinegar,” pointing scornfully at music videos and magazine spreads. “None of it makes me feel anything.” In the title track, he observes “no signs of original thought in the mainstream,” and then wonders, in “Up the Cuts”: “Is there anyone thinking what I am? / Are you restless like me?”
That questing spirit — the desire to interact with something that means more than whatever’s served up before him — prevents Gabel’s skepticism from hardening into indie-chauvinist dogma. Old-school fans from Against Me!’s basement-show days will undoubtedly hear New Wave‘s big-room boom as a compromise of the face-to-face inter-action that Gabel is stumping for. But the singer’s own thinking is more open-minded than that — if a pop song moves him, Gabel seems like the kind of fellow who would enthusiastically say so.
There’s a similar nuance to his politics: As New Wave‘s handful of bureaucrat-booing antiwar songs make clear, Against Me! are loud-and-proud lefties. (One of those cuts, “White People for Peace,” is a protest song in response to military aggression that actually includes the words “protest songs in response to military aggression” — a good indicator of Gabel’s self-deprecating wit.) Yet, what he really wants is for people to think for themselves, whether or not that means thinking like him. Over the slashing disco-punk guitars of “Stop!,” Gabel urges us to “take some time to think / Figure out what’s important to you.” Are you ready to be liberated?