...Honor is All We Know is a solid but ultimately inessential addition to the Rancid catalogue that finds Rancid back where they belong, crafting straightforward punk anthems without pretense.
“I’m back, I’m back where I belong! I’ve been gone way too long and I’m back where I belong!” chants Rancid singer Tim Armstrong in the rousing and characteristically catchy call-to-arms that serves as the opening salvo to the legendary punk veterans’ eighth studio album, ...Honor Is All We Know. To understand how ...Honor Is All We Know is intended to feature in the band’s canon, look no further. The album finds Rancid in their wheelhouse, forgoing experimentation for simplified, back-to-basics pop punk replete with the infectious hooks and fist-pumping choruses that are emblematic of the band’s classic sound. To the extent that this record heralds a return to the band’s roots, it is also an acknowledgment of the journey that many of Rancid’s dedicated listeners have taken with the band since discovering their captivating, frenetic first records released (it’s hard to believe) over 20 years ago. While themes of unity and brotherhood are presented straightforwardly on ...Honor Is All We Know, without the compelling grit and nuance of Rancid’s early material, the album is a spirited and not uninspired late-career addition to the Rancid catalogue.
Of course, Rancid have been promising a return to various iterations of their roots, to diminishing returns, since their second self-titled record in 2000. Continuing a theme from “Last One to Die” on 2009’s Let the Dominoes Fall, Rancid seem content to have triumphed as improbable survivors of a scene notorious for its attrition: “Another day livin’ / Another day older / didn’t think I was gonna ever make it this far / Tell my story through the voice and guitar.” Emerging from the Bay Area gutter punk scene in the early ‘90s, Rancid are among a sanctified class of punk stalwarts, who, despite early success, did not burn out, sell out or self-destruct. From that perspective, Rancid’s artistic ambitions on recent offerings may be, justifiably, more limited: to reward the tribe that has remained loyal to them for so long with easily accessible material that takes few risks and hews closely to the group’s established sound. As a result, many of the chant-ready choruses come off as sincere but forgettable genre platitudes (“Raise your fist / Against the power / The power that exists!”).
Heavy on anthemic choruses and light on nuanced lyricism, ...Honor Is All We Know seems intended to conjure the energy and camaraderie that are hallmarks of Rancid’s famed live shows. On this record, listeners are invited into the inner circle pit of Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, Branden Steineckert and Matt Freeman and asked to join in the paradoxical mix of mayhem and solidarity that define the live experience. Songs like “Back Where I Belong”, “Raise Your Fist”, and “A Power Inside” include pitch-perfect punk choruses and rollicking melodic verses that feel written to inspire you to down that cheap beer fast, check your shoelaces and dive into the pit to chant along. The ethos of countercultural solidarity and unity among punks, traceable as far back as Tim Armstrong’s early days in Operation Ivy, has become increasingly pronounced since 2003’s Indestructible. The endearing but simplistic chorus of “Fall Down” on Indestructible, (“If I fall back back down, you’re gonna help me back up again / If I fall back down, you’re gonna be my friend”) expresses an upbeat loyalty that is reincarnated on the eponymous track “Honor is All We Know” (“Hold your head up high / When the hard times come, we have the strength to defy”). In other manifestations, on tracks like “Now We’re Through With You”, bravado about the band’s “crew” is taken to an almost amusingly cliquish extent (“You drew blood with the wrong crew / Now we’re through with you!”).
However, despite Rancid’s preternatural talent for crafting solid, sing-along punk songs with catchy, pop hooks, it is the aesthetic evocations of life on the streets and the resonant depictions of gritty cities, working class neighborhoods and urban blight that were the soul of Rancid’s classic albums. Rancid’s first four albums were filled with ephemeral and loving portraits of addicts, immigrants, squatters and sex workers populating the squalor that Rancid evoked with surprising eloquence, including tragic street fatalities lost to poverty and drugs (Mario on “Hoover Street”), intoxicating junkie muses (Maya on “Rats in the Hallway”) and perpetually feuding skinheads (Jimmy and Johnny of “The Ballad of Jimmy and Johnny”), among many others. These albums were also animated by expressive details of place, including the white ghettos of Sherman Palms (“Nihilism”), shooting galleries of Whitestone, Queens (“1998”), the cold alleyways of Detroit (“Detroit”) and the destitution of the Tenderloin district (“Tenderloin”).
The poetry of these spaces and an empathy for the characters that inhabit them lent to an underlying DIY anarcho-politics that was manifest in classics like “Sidekick” from 1994’s Let’s Go. While Rancid’s ethos has not changed, the poetry, empathy and class dynamics so masterfully captured on Rancid’s early material is not present in any detail on ...Honor Is All We Know. “Face Up”, for example, is an enjoyable listen and describes a hard-edged punk lifestyle -- “Well it's just another day of getting into trouble / Chasing all the booze with another bottle” -- but lacks real substance or nuance. Though the same places and experiences seem to be the template from which Rancid continues to draw inspiration, the chorus-heavy romps on this album lack the detail and immediacy that made earlier albums feel so compelling.
Certainly, ...Honor Is All We Know retains the mixture of pop sensibility and punk edge that defined the band’s signature sound and ushered in a punk revival in the mid-'90s. The same energy and musicianship can be found on this album at points, including the tightly paced drums and vocals on “In the Streets”, shredding guitar riff on “Diabolical”, a fast-paced verse and infectious chorus on “Collision Course”, and ska-tinged melodies on “Evil’s My Friend” or “Everybody’s Sufferin’”. While this album recalls the classic Rancid sound, it lacks the rawness and vitality that defined Rancid’s output for a decade (and to which it will inevitably be compared). In part, it seems that Armstrong has begun to use his side projects as vehicles for experimentation in order to jettison the musical expectations associated with the Rancid brand. More inspired recently have been Armstrong’s reflective, reggae-inflected 2007 solo album A Poet’s Life and the abundant output of multi-genre covers and original material he has released for the past two years under the moniker Tim Timebomb; these include forays into reggae, folk, country and even New Orleans jazz. ...Honor Is All We Know is a solid but ultimately inessential addition to the Rancid catalogue that finds Rancid back where they belong, crafting straightforward punk anthems without pretense -- and next time you catch them live you will probably agree that’s just fine.