Against Me!‘s The Original Cowboy is a re-release in demo form of their fine 2003 work The Eternal Cowboy. The Original Cowboy differs from its more polished predecessor on paper only by sinking “Sink, Florida, Sink!” and by “A Brief Yet Triumphant Introduction”, which was was originally “A Brief Yet Triumphant Intermission” (and has different lyrical phrasings here and there). Look, let’s be honest. This is not an album of demos like the early Elvis Sun Records recordings, where one song is straight-up country and the next is this rebel struggling out of its womb called rock-and-roll. There are differences. How big and important these demos are depends on your tastes—slightly more produced versus rougher. This band was certainly not as well-known in 2003 as they are today, after their major label debut New Wave last year was hailed by some critics as the most important rock album of the year. So let’s go back and treat these songs properly, especially for those who don’t yet have the back catalog.
Against Me! protests and documents…and with their few love and loss songs, documents and identifies in humanist fashion. But, going beyond those political prereqs, they also ask questions, even about the usefulness of protest or of asking questions about the usefulness of protest. This reflexive quality, too in-your-face earnest for some, is what especially sets them apart from less mature brands of a-punk allergies to authority. The Original Cowboy has been arranged in a way to emphasize those qualities of protest and self-reflexivity and -critique, perhaps in a more coherent fashion than did its predecessor. Critique and self-reflection are the lyrical hallmarks of almost all these songs, while their author’s anger, hope, and desire for change comes out in Tom Gabel’s yelp-yawp-howls and their fleeting more whole-noted echoes of Glen Danzig. The instrumental side is what everyone has said and will say: it’s grittier and, if that’s what you like, better. It ranges from pop-punk to more complicated, sometimes stuttered but melodic indie rock riffs (Jawbox comes to mind) and also acoustic folk. Guitarist James Bowman and bassist Andrew Seward’s backing vocals also play an integral role in the memorable singalong choruses Against Me! has given us. The bottom line: This is great punk rock with a sometimes folk/alt-rock-guitar twist. The only problem with it is it’s not exactly new.
From the get go Against Me! was tagged as a political folk-punk act. To me it makes no sense at all to even remark that a band is political if you’re not going to analyze their lyrics or explain how some aspect of their identity is political. With Against Me!, as with Woody Guthrie or The Dead Kennedys, what is political is mainly the lyrics. The reviews of these tracks in their more produced 2003 album form did not pay much attention to the lyrics (partly because of the approximately 120-word review format for lesser-known bands). Let’s fix that once and for all.
The opener, “A Brief Yet Triumphant Introduction”, is supposed to be an instrumental build-up to the second track “Cliché Guevarra” (separated by only a backslash in the title and an elongated chord-bridge on the record). While the song does build, I’m not convinced that it builds enough to merit no break between the songs. In any case, the two songs demonstrate the diversity of Against Me!. The first is a briskly drummed number, with jangly guitar vaguely reminiscent of that on U2’s Joshua Tree (yes, shoot me), perhaps mixed with Superchunk when they really got it working. The point being this opener is not stamped “punk.” But the second track of this two-track track, “Cliché Guevarra”, is difficult not to put up front, post-prelude or lone-standing. It comports with all the signature components of the band: social and political angst coupled with irrepressible, energetic demands for a new direction, for change. That signature was as true and consistent on the original Fat Wreck Chords release of The Eternal Cowboy as it was on last year’s major label debut New Wave .
“Cliché Guevarra” lends them credibility as not just another naïve punk band lambasting the Man. War fronts multiply and protest feels cliché, Gabel barks in the first verse. Not only is he protesting the choice to launch war in Iraq; he’s questioning whether singing about it will help. It’s a very humanizing move that undercuts the whippersnapper-punk-rock-preacher critiques—“What does he know?” It’s more reflective than that. In the second verse, there’s a critique of the corporate music culture, its vacuous pop songs and fans who slurp it up in their lotus Land Rovers, spinning obliviously all the while toward eco-apocalypse and constant war: “So can your pop sensibilities sing me the end of the world? / Turn gunshots and mortar blasts / into a metaphor of how we are all the same.” His question: How can we see this, listen to and/or play rock music (to say nothing of punk) and not say something about it? “There are things that should be said / so we’re hammering six strings /machine guns in audible voices / this is the party we came for.” A fine tradition; “This Machine Kills Fascists”, Woody Guthrie famously scrawled on his guitar. The last verse ends on a potentially ambiguous note, Gabel having uncomfortably fallen between the question of whether this all really has any effect and the moral obligation to say something: “yeah we rock, we rock, we rock, we rock! / to the new sensation”. The ironic, anthemic chorus, also a signature, only underlines their consistent striving for a new way out of this place. Rock may not be the only way out, but it might be part of the route. It’s not just angry escape, or an id-ish middle finger to all that is “normal,” but a meta-protest within a protest. It also feels good.
The ethos of that excellent first track, even rawer and more aggressive than on the original release, is in good company with other songs on the album (and an integral part of the Against Me! corpus) such as “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists”, which like “Cliché Guevarra” is the second of two songs rolled into one track, the first part being “You Look Like I Need a Drink”. In a way, “Turn Those Clapping Hands…”, the last song on the record, may be Gabel’s response to “Cliché Guevarra”. Just rocking toward a “new way” is not enough for Gabel. There’s a call to action, which demonstrates the delicate lyrical position Against Me! often occupies with regard to its audience. An Against Me! audience must confront the band’s critique of the larger corporate music culture (among other critiques). This isn’t about just channeling our desire into a few pints, some weed, slam dancing, crowd surfing and gratefully applauding and star worshiping. Do something. The fan must realize, if he/she is listening at all, that it isn’t just about the corporate music culture, but also even the so-called DIY culture.
Sleep on pillows made in Singapore…
Drink your coffee in the morning,
flown in on airplanes across vast seas…
I hate these songs…
but I’m not going to tell anyone
what I’m really thinking about…
Keep on smiling…
keep on saying everything’s going to be alright.
The second track “Mutiny on the Electronic Bay” contains all the angst and frustration of the opener “Cliché Guevarra”, without the ambiguous thread of hope in the latter. Clearly referring to the Iraq War, Gabel is flabbergasted: “When an invasion can bring a country its freedom / then unconsciousness is true happiness / no, i don’t know what to say.” And at least half of the U.S. is represented in that sentiment. Not in our name, goddamn it!
“T.S.R.” (“This Shit Rules”) begins with a kind of reggae punk guitar, à la the Clash, and then quickly gets fast and furious (insofar as one can say that in a post-hardcore era). This is the ode to self-reflection: “it’s only this fucked up I start realizing / all this living is just dying / and if these are my friends / if this is my home / if this is how I spend my nights / how I communicate, and demonstrate a love of life / my eyes roll into the back of my head / if these are the last words that I ever said / no, I’m not ready to die just yet”. Via reflexivity, a new way out?
How about “Rice and Bread”? Is it consistent with the thematic repertoire? Check the self-explanation/reflexivity (the “what the fuck am I trying to do besides be a desirable rock star up here?” question) directed at themselves and the audience: “You’re gonna sing your heart out / sing it like you mean it / you’re gonna sing everything you’re thinking / and you’re gonna sing it until they’re listening….They can make an industry selling people the things they want to hear / If this is worth anything, we will sell it for humility / It will take us farther than the posture you’re fronting.” In their own faces as much as in ours!
“Cavalier Eternal” is the folk-punk remnant constant in the Against Me! corpus, evidently closer to Gabel’s origins and a side of him very much alive today, judging by his recent acoustic release Heart Burns. But this is not a Guthrie/Bragg protest song, either. It’s a ballad about a breakup caused by a dynamic, not something that one partner did. It might seem like it doesn’t fit, but it’s consistent with the band’s tradition.
The laugh-inducingly titled “You Look Like I Need a Drink” also preserves the cowpunk Against Me! thread, dating back to Reinventing Axel Rose’s “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”. The galloping Western style is reminiscent of the Old 97s circa Too Far Too Care (think “Four Leaf Clover”). Its chorus is among their most memorable: ” Down down down, so soft of a sound, can you hear it all coming back after you? [repeat]”. Its theme of the danger in small lies after a seeming one-night stand could just as easily be applied to the lies and misleading statements politicians and their minion pundits use all the time to gain consent and leave others to clean up the mess. “Unsubstantiated Rumors” also sounds relationship-oriented, but it’s a rocking nerve of a song. The somewhat angry and frustration-purging manic tempo is explained by the fact that one party in the breakup has been lying about the couple’s history.
The urge toward change continues in “Slurring the Rhythms”. The stuttered-drummed principle of moving on and anti-complacency recur, making the song a would’ve-been-contender for opening track. “This could be any day / this could be any year / this could be any stage / this could be any city”, Gabel gargles, “All that matters is we’re moving on”. Talk of “construction” and “destruction,” “en route to arrival”; “we’re never going home”.
As mentioned above, they end courageously, with a completed reflection on the music culture they inhabit as well as their artistic, ethical and rhetorical goals. “Turn those clapping hands into angry balled fists” is no longer a reflective question, but a marching order. So, will we dare listen to this band, singing along, feeling like good anarchists (or retired ones; in a word, liberals), and doing little beyond the occasional slash of an SUV tire?