Photo: Atiba Jefferson / Epitaph Records

Rancid Set Sail for Glory on ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’

A rollicking experience from start to finish, Tomorrow Never Comes shows once again why punk rockers Rancid are so fondly regarded. Here’s to them!

Tomorrow Never Comes
Hellcat / Epitaph
2 June 2023

In May 1993, Rancid put out their eponymous debut on Epitaph and became a vital part of the Berkeley, California, scene associated with the 924 Gilman Street venue; with the local Lookout Records label that also put out Green Day‘s first albums; and with Epitaph, the powerhouse label created by Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion. In a classic run from 1995-2000, Rancid innovated on the traditionalist street punk formula to drive …And Out Come the Wolves to the US Top 50 with its catchy pop hooks and ska bounce. They followed it up with their magnum opus, the equally successful, heavy, and stylistically fluid Life Won’t Wait. Rancid then stripped back to concise bursts of the hardest of hardcore punk on their second eponymous album in 2000.

August 2003’s Indestructible, a recapitulation of Rancid’s pop instincts, inaugurated a new era. The four Rancid albums released since were all well-received. Indestructible’s peak chart performance comes second only to 2009’s Let the Dominoes Fall. However, each stayed within a safe zone where Rancid delivered effectively and efficiently, band and audience alike had fun, but it became hard to distinguish one album from another. In the meantime, Rancid’s no-compromise allegiance to their scene meant they became respected elders to a new generation of artists, giving them a well-earned longevity that higher-flying peers from the 1990s have not matched.

June 2023, 30 years after Rancid’s rampaging debut, it comes as no surprise that there’s no wild change of direction – what isn’t broken and all that….Tomorrow Never Comes finds Gurewitz at the helm as producer for the sixth album in a row, ensuring no-frills, no-spills fidelity to the group’s polished sound. It’s also Rancid’s most concise statement at less than 29 minutes, as only six of 16 tracks even break the two-minute mark. The album never lets up on the breathless pace at any point.

While short in length, if you love what Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, Matt Freeman, and Branden Steineckert do so well, there’s a stuffed treasure chest of delights here. For the first time, Rancid have written an entire record around a single concept: it dwells with gusto on the historical anarchism and freedom of piracy on the high seas. They show their maturity as lyricists in that it’s possible to listen to Tomorrow Never Comes and hear, instead, the ethics of the modern punk scene without even noticing the album’s thematic conceit. Either way, it’s a blast!

The album commences with the rough living of “Tomorrow Never Comes”, in which crime is the only option given the utter absence of support or protection from the government, law enforcement, or officialdom – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose in the world of American-style capitalist libertarianism. It continues with rescue, of a sort, on “Mud, Blood and Gold” with its seaborne promise of adventure. But there’s also the note of caution and suspicion sounded in “Devil in Disguise”, a highlight with its catchy chorus and perky call to the virtues of paranoia when embarking on a rebel’s path. The exhilaration of escape comes through on “New American” as globe-spanning horizons open up.

Tomorrow Never Comes‘ key character, Eddie the Butcher, enters the picture: an artisan of pistol, knife, or sword, he receives an entire song dedicated to him after the first mention on “New American”, where “we sailed together to the Singapore shore, that’s where we met Calico Jim…”. The character’s nickname perhaps tips the hat to Edward Cummiskey Jr., a New York mobster killed by the Genovese crime family in 1976, but in this context is more likely a reference to Edward Teach – the famed pirate, Blackbeard – with “The Bloody and Violent History” setting the scene as the Barbary Coast. It’s another shrewd splicing of time and crime with the inescapable realities of hard lives and limited options for those not blessed at birth.

Tomorrow Never Comes continues by recasting the golden age of piracy as a lesson in rough and ready ethics: “You can’t teach loyalty / It’s an honor bestowed / It’s a road to righteousness / When you’re living by the gentleman’s code”. That is returned to in “Hear Us Out”, which celebrates positive unity and empathy unto death, “this is our time, it won’t last forever / Keep up the courage it’s our last stand ever.” Again, this is a concept dear to the hearts of Rancid with their brothers in arms/last gang in town mentality.

The consequences of sin, willing or unwilling, are laid out with the slight 50-second vignette of “Don’t Make Me Do It” whipping us through a murder scene. The fall plays out across “Drop Dead Inn” and “Prisoners Song”, in the casting around for allies and escape and the defiance on trial on “Magnificent Rogue”. It’s also in the inevitability of the grave on “One Way Ticket”, “Hellbound Train”, and then the passing into legend and immortality on “Eddie the Butcher”, “Hear Us Out”, and “When the Smoke Clears”.

“Live Forever” is the only clear break with the setting, a straight-up tour and gig song unless the references to the overall theme are so subtle as to be undetectable. Instead, it offers up nods to the Give Em the Boot compilation series put out by Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat Records (a sub-label of Epitaph), Let’s Go, and Rancid’s hit song “Roots Radical”. The line “hard to handle” is even sung in a direct echo of the lyric “heard the rumble” from “Cash, Culture and Violence”.

Highlights-wise, if you enjoy the more grizzled and gritty aspects of their work, you’ll like “Magnificent Rogue”, “One Way Ticket”, or “Hellbound Train”. If it’s the triumphal fanfares and anthemic guitar riffs, then “When the Smoke Clears”, “New American”, and “Prisoners Song” have got you covered. In terms of choruses custom-built for moshpit singalongs, I’m rooting for “Devil in Disguise”, “Tomorrow Never Comes”, and the appealing sweetness of “Hear Us Out”. That’s the kind of high-calorie goodness that shows why Rancid have always been so dependably excellent. A rollicking experience from start to finish, Tomorrow Never Comes shows once again why Rancid are so fondly regarded. Here’s to them!

RATING 8 / 10