Graduating in the same class as mainstream punk rock acts Green Day, Anti-Flag, the Offspring, and others, Chicago, Illinois-based band Rise Against crafts songs born of an ennui that long ago boiled over into rage. And there’s plenty to rage about, of course. Economic hardship, domestic and international imbroglios, and a rash of other injustices—plenty evidence for a gloomy forecast on the future. Add to this mix the prophecies of oddballs like Harold Campbell, the California man who caused a worldwide fervor when he predicted the Rapture would literally occur on May 21, 2011. These problems, and the anxiety they cause, infest Rise Against’s latest album, Endgame (2011)—a hymnbook of laments from a frustrated generation.
For the past ten years, Rise Against has conducted a series of Platinum- and Gold-certified seances where it channeled the collective consciousness of the self-proclaimed “orphans of the American dream”, those who grew up in the shadows of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, children who came of age in a era where people tweet about a tsunami’s rampage one minute and Justin Bieber the next. Obsessed with the search for truth, the band’s lyrics personify the anger beneath modern malaise, and document what happens when the inability to discern right from wrong collides with the desire to do so. What results, perhaps not surprisingly, is music rife with religious terminology.
In Endgame, the generation that earned its stripes in this age of American disillusionment has hit rock bottom; they’ve become an unstoppable force confronted with the same immovable object of ambivalence. But wars that play out on the world stage still end up tinkering with the individual heart, it seems. By turns ponderous and furious, the album chronicles one generation’s spiritual trajectory from creation to apocalypse with the authority of a firsthand witness. As lead singer Tim McIlrath said in a recent interview, “What if the life that we’re living right now is this unsustainable bubble that cannot go on and perhaps does not deserve to go on?”
Blessings and Battle Cries
Ever since Woody Guthrie scrawled the slogan “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar (and even before then) the American protest song has been a fixture of the national culture. Though it would be difficult to mistake one of Rise Against’s power-chord-laden manifestos for Guthrie’s Fourth of July fare, both artists share one fundamental connection—the desire to communicate truth through music, to spur listeners into action.
The album implies a hefty history: disgust with perceived American hypocrisy fuses with the conviction to make things right again. But while McIlrath’s lyrics are spiked with indignation, self-doubt still creeps in. “Can nobody save us? Will anyone try?” he asks on the album’s second track, “Help Is on the Way”, a departure from a more upbeat assessment of things in the album’s opener, “Architect”. “Let’s decide to be the architects, the masters of our fate”, he sings, echoing William Ernest Henley’s poem championing individual autonomy, “Invictus”.
Despite the cries for a savior, the album’s characters rarely relent their anger—either out of bravery, naivety, or a combination of the two—and refuse to suffer in silence. Endgame, instead, seems partially a re-interpretation of the Book of Job. The nameless Americans represented in these lyrics have either lost or are being beaten, but are unwilling to sit down and simply take their lumps. They are not Calvinist in their worldviews, but the album bears a harsh revelation: the revolution will save some, and condemn others.
The struggle then becomes one to discern who’s among the elect and who isn’t. All targets, no matter how politically or socially charged, are fair game. “What god would damn a heart?” McIlrath accuses in the pre-chorus of “Make It Stop (September’s Children)”, a song dedicated to Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide last September after being bullied for his homosexuality. God and country appear again as the administrators of abuse as the track storms on: “From a nation under God / I feel its love like a cattle prod”. McIlrath continues, “Born free, but still they hate”. Thus commences a litany against the problems of evil, human judgment, divine injustice, and the apathy these things provoke: “They’re gathering candles, but not their tongues”, he sings, before reading off a list of teenagers whose suicides drew public attention for similar reasons.
Endgame makes much of the individual’s capacity to stage a moral upheaval against the status quo and the counterculture’s ability to provide support. Still, the album depicts its characters as hardly in control of much at all. There are larger forces at work, and these weave their way, track by track, into the album’s conceptual framework. Meshed into the angular melodies and confessional lyrics is at once a primal question of belief and disbelief, a query into the faith one has in oneself and the outside world—or the lack thereof.
Faced with the reality of doubt, the album vacillates between frustration and self-pity, ultimately settling on zeal. “Hey man, now did you hear your final days are near?” asks McIlrath in “Broken Mirrors”, refreshing the album’s sense of equilibrium. “A free-fall of fire and ice and explosions in the sky”. He continues a prophecy of the universe’s impending implosion before approaching mortality in “A Gentleman’s Coup”. “The power to free or to control”, he sings, “We let it scrape through our fingers to the bone”. All of this before shoving one final and damning image into the viewfinder (“Watch as the bodies wash ashore / Nobody lives here anymore”) This is at once the horror of the world in its current state and the violence of its rapture, the empty thrones that result when judgment reaches the point of fruition.
The Second Coming, or Third
By the culmination of Endgame, the arc of its subjects’ spiritual dialectic is either completed, or recycling. Whether or not the uprising will reincarnate from its cinders is unsure. Certainly, progress has been made, the “burning signal fires” left behind for other compasses. Armageddon is almost here, but its precise date has been miscalculated, birthing a sense of unease McIlrath sings about on the album’s eponymous and ultimate track:
“The paranoia gripped us
The rain turned engines to rust
The panic set in like a cancer to our hearts
We bet on finite genius
Or prayed for gods to save us”
Still, the desire for renewal is clear. “Is this the end of yesterday?” a character asks another as the song continues: “‘Lord, I hope so’, is all he said”.
Like all smartly-constructed narratives, Endgame preserves itself with the promise of continuation. Paradise is close, but not close enough to touch. In its place for the time-being is an idea of vindication, the hope that those who waged war against the powers that be will find that they have fought for the right side, and that the battle is actually over. The album’s conclusion hints that the revolution may have failed to admit those tossing Molotov cocktails into the Pearly Gates, and that what felt like a cosmic clash for self-determination in a post-theistic world might just have been a skirmish.
The mythologized generation drifts into limbo as they anticipate a terminal transmission from the beyond. Whether such a beyond exists supernaturally or in the hearts of impromptu revolutionaries doesn’t seem to make much difference. For better or worse, the album’s characters rationalize their destinies against a landscape of disaster. “The weight that we once felt is gone”, McIlrath sings on the final track. The crownless crown themselves, and wait for the next—and hopefully last—chapter of their history to be immortalized in the scriptures of punk rock.