Being that the Berkeley brats in Green Day appear to have fully devoted themselves to crafting mawkish anthems for disaffected mallrats, it’s tempting to ignore all the similarities between that band and Florida’s Against Me!, who may well be the only relevant punk act signed to a major label today. But frontman Tom Gabel shares wholeheartedly in Billie Joe Armstrong’s proclivity for earnest lyrical politicking, and his band has been dogged with predictable “sell out” charges with each successive album, even before they jumped to the majors. White Crosses is Against Me!’s second release with Sire and—like its predecessor, New Wave—it’s produced by Butch Vig, the alt-rock super-producer whose credits include Nevermind and, yes, Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown.
But where Green Day now works full-time as stadium-packing purveyors of morally and musically blunt arena rock, Against Me! refuses to let sonic slickness spell the end of subtlety. Lyrically, White Crosses gets the mix of topical and personal themes nearly perfect, but not by simply alternating political barn-burners with ballads and breakup songs, as they’ve done on past outings, but by making smarter, sharper connections between world events and their own individual stories. The title track’s protagonist is “looking for context and perspective, looking for some kind of distraction” as he tries to pin down the source of his own sense of alienation; “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” is an amusing, certainly snarky, but ultimately mature consideration of the slippages between ideology and fashion. The fact that both songs marry their introspective lyrics to searing guitar leads and sing-along choruses so memorable you’ll be able to join in by song’s end guarantees that lyrical maturity won’t be the only thing bringing you back for repeat listens.
Those two tracks set the sonic template for White Crosses, which, as arena-sized album rock goes, gives American Idiot a run for its money. But instead of looking to the Who’s mini-operas for inspiration, Against Me! bolsters their Clash-inflected punk with the theatrical ’80s rock of Billy Idol and Bruce Springsteen. Sometimes the relentless push to fist-pumping catharsis sails right on over the top (“We’re Breaking Up” is about as blandly over-emotive as its title suggests), but more often the added energy does the band well, turning borderline flyover tracks like “Because of the Shame” and “Spanish Moss” into affecting anthems through sheer momentum.
Even so, a couple of the low points just won’t sound good no matter how loud you turn them up. “We’re Breaking Up” falls into that category, as does “Suffocation,” whose mantra-like refrain (“Suffocation/Modern life in the Western world!”) is a flavorless bit of agit-pop platitude. To his credit, Tom Gabel has matured enough as a lyricist to finally let the record industry and its homogenizing machinations—long-suffering targets of his tirades—off the hook. The inherent obnoxiousness of hearing a major-label rock band rail against the corporate system aside, it’s always preferable to hear anthems that people who aren’t industry professionals could relate to.
Besides, if working with Vig and the rest of the folks at Sire has put any kind of damper on Against Me!’s style, there’s no evidence of it here. White Crosses proves to be a varied and exciting listen, with a pulsing new-wave bassline on “High Pressure Low,” an acoustic barroom dirge on “Ache with Me,” and a fierce hardcore shout-along on “Rapid Decompression” are some of the cooler sonic curveballs that Against Me! throws on the album’s second half. Every bit as strong is the closing track, “Bamboo Bones,” which gives new drummer George Rebelo (formerly of Hot Water Music) a chance to show off his skills by leaping between at least three different drumbeats, all of them punchy and propulsive.
Against Me!’s roots in punk and newfound interest in arena-rock should make them doubly disposed against any kind of subtlety, which makes it all the more refreshing when White Crosses only occasionally veers into the self-serious terrain for which both genres are known. For the most part, the band puts out a well-proportioned blend of fun and fury, replete with hooks and slogans, sure, but the kind that are meant to provoke thought, not drill in answers. On the soaring chorus to “Teenage Anarchist,” Gabel asks “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” as though nothing could be sillier or more noble. They’re vets now, but they’re still an evolving band that’s yet to figure out anything as big as the world or as small as their own sound. And they’re probably better for it.