When we last heard from Against Me!, they were earning mainstream recognition for their major label debut, New Wave. They had a minor hit single in “Thrash Unreal” and even a romantic-sounding duet with Tegan of indie darlings Tegan and Sara. The production from Butch Vig toned down some of the band’s punk grit and emphasized a more expansive, rock-oriented sound. But all was not lost for the hardcore audience who discovered the band when Against Me! were angry punks on small labels. There was still plenty of left-wing fury from bandleader Tom Gabel on the album. “Thrash Unreal” was even about an ex-junkie trying to hang on to her youth. When Gabel released his subsequent solo EP Heart Burns, it consisted largely of raw, yet catchy, mostly-acoustic protest songs. There was reason to hope that the full band’s follow-up to New Wave might hearken back to the early days.
The opening two tracks of White Crosses feed right into that hope. Sure, with Butch Vig again producing, the sound is still clean and maybe even bigger this time out. The title track is a chugging, major key-screed about the pro-life movement and features the refrain, “White crosses on the church lawn / I want to smash them all!” But Gabel knows his audience is larger and more inclusive now, so he makes the rest of the lyrics vague enough that it’s not patently obvious what he’s singing about. Following that, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” is a pitch-perfect song about growing up and outgrowing simplistic punk politics. At this point, you can imagine those old-school fans celebrating that the Against Me! they knew and loved is back. A little older and wiser, but they’re back doing what they do best.
Those hopes will vaporize with the pretty opening piano chords of the next track, “Because of the Shame”. It turns out that Against Me! isn’t going to kowtow to the militant punk crowd. White Crosses is a huge, mainstream rock album that draws as much from Bruce Springsteen and U2 as it does from their own folk-punk roots. Sorry, bitter old-school fans, but it’s really, really good. Gabel’s songwriting is strong throughout the whole album, and the band’s decision to keep the album brisk at 10 tracks in 35 minutes pays off handsomely. This is a compact, concise record that swings for the fences with every song. It doesn’t quite hit a home run on all of them, but there’s value in the trying.
It might seem redundant for Against Me! to go the punks-plus-Springsteen route, with the Hold Steady, the Gaslight Anthem, and Titus Andronicus carving out careers doing the same, but the anthemic “Because of the Shame” manages to pull it off. The song lies on a bed of piano melody and organ chords and finds Gabel singing clearly about attending the funeral of a onetime girlfriend whom he hadn’t seen in years. The song is topped off with an enormous chorus that’s typically wordy: “Because of the shame / associated with vulnerability / I am numbing myself completely / Can you hear me right now?” The album’s other piano-based song doesn’t work quite as well. “We’re Breaking Up” is a full-on power ballad, albeit a relatively fast-paced one. It uses a plaintive piano hook to drive the verses as Gabel laments the end of a relationship. The normally socially-oriented Gabel comes off a bit trite here when he attempts a lost-love song. White Crosses’ one other misstep is the acoustic, slightly country-sounding “Ache With Me.” This song finds Gabel in a melancholy mood about, well, you name it. A girl, closed minds, pretty much anything he can think of to be bummed about makes his list during the song. It’s a decent change-of-pace track, but the sentiment isn’t very affecting, and a recurring whispered “Ahhh” sound comes off as an annoyance.
The rest of the album is catchy and fast-moving, with songs that quickly lodge in your head and don’t leave. “Spanish Moss” sounds like Against Me!‘s take on a U2 song, all epic high-pitched guitar riffs and huge backing vocals. New drummer George Rebelo stands out here with some inspired tom work. “Rapid Decompression” is a great balls-out punk song, with Gabel singing in his old-style throat-shredding howl and shouted gang vocals. White Crosses wraps up with “Bamboo Bones”, a gigantic singalong that uses about three different bouncy drumbeats from Rebelo to make it the album’s most rhythmically interesting track. It also features the catchiest refrain on a record full of earworms, as Gabel yells, “What God doesn’t give to you / You’ve got to go and get it for yourself!”
Butch Vig’s last major production gig was Green Day’s sprawling 21st Century Breakdown. White Crosses shares that album’s huge sound. This is a way more focused record than that one, fortunately, and it spotlights Gabel’s considerable songwriting skills. As good as Gabel and his band sound here, though, it’s hard not to miss the old days a bit. Gabel used to have a compelling, throaty growl of a voice that sounded sort of like Tom Waits fronting the Clash. Vig has gotten him to clean up his singing a lot (although not entirely). While he still sings with passion, it’s taken some of the character out of his voice. But Against Me! are clearly moving into a new phase of their career, and they don’t seem interested in looking back.