Anti-Flag have been in the game for quite a while. On American Spring, they show that it may be time to throw in the towel.
Sometimes, when a band makes essentially the same album over and over again, it's depressing because it's indicative of a creative rut; however, in the case of Pittsburgh punk rockers Anti-Flag, the thematic repetition of their music is sad for a much bleaker reason. Across 19 years and nine studio albums, in addition to a handful of EPs and collaborations, the group's politically-charged lyrics have remained largely unchanged. Of course, the problems they were confronting back on albums like Die for the Government (1996) and Underground Network (2001), by and large, haven't gone away.
Anti-Flag started out independent, were briefly signed to a major label, got dropped, and then went back to the indies. Throughout it all, they have stayed quixotically devoted to the idea that punk music can affect real political change; mountains of evidence to the contrary have never seemed to dull their enthusiasm, and bless them for that.
However, their ninth studio album American Spring breaks with convention, pulling punches in a way Anti-Flag albums never had before. The targets are more vaguely defined this time around than they have traditionally been, ambiguous to a distressing fault. While older Anti-Flag songs like "The W.T.O. Kills Farmers" and "The Neoliberal Anthem" made their targets completely explicit, the enemies on American Spring are ambiguous and hazily defined. On the Tim Armstrong-assisted "Brandenburg Gate", the narrator "lost [his] baby to a foreign war", but the lyrics are about as clear as "American Pie"; a Cold War setting is suggested by the song's title, but extracting anything clearer from its lyrics is an exercise in futility.
The identifiable themes -- an apathetic populace, perpetual warfare, and the corrupt corptocracy that makes up American politics -- are ones Anti-Flag have expounded upon countless times. The problems haven't gone away, and with the major difference to Anti-Flag's lyrics being that they're no longer naming names, it seems best to try and approach American Spring strictly from a musical perspective. Lyrically, it's something like the old schoolyard rhyme; "Second verse, same as the first / A little bit louder and a little bit worse."
Musically, the opener "Fabled World" is an absolutely great time, with a massive sing-along hook (complete with "whoa-oh" accompaniment, naturally) and a driving rhythm gleefully leading the listener to have just about the least accurate impression of the album possible. The diminishing returns sink in fast after the quite strong "The Great Divide" and the aforementioned "Brandenburg Gate". This opening trio of solid tracks is followed by very little of any note. Anyone who's heard an Anti-Flag album before knows what to expect from the rest of American Spring, and for the uninitiated it's hardly an ideal starting point. The crunched power chords and shouted vocals blend together to make the latter three quarters of the album an increasingly indistinct mess of generic punk, only barely livened up by the slightly-amusing "Low Expectations" ("this place, it sucks, and I don't give a fuck") -- but the emphasis is on "barely" here.
Anti-Flag have had a long run, close to 20 years now, and in their time they've made more great music than many bands could ever claim. On a musical level, The Terror State (2003) is every bit as much of a pop-punk classic as Green Day's Dookie, and it has the advantage of not having been subjected to decades of radio overplay. But on American Spring, Anti-Flag are finally starting to show their age. The record benefits from a strong start, but even that doesn't last very long at all. As for the rest, it's just far too many interchangeable songs that go in one ear and out the other. Anti-Flag may still have a good album or two left in them, but this one certainly is not it.