The very idea of an aging punk would seem a contradiction of terms, the music itself the province of youthful rebellion and unbridled idealism. That there remain a select few groups of musicians continuing to pursue the punk aesthetic of their formative years should come as little surprise, given our national propensity for arrested development and the shouldering off of impending adulthood. For the perennial punks in Rancid, little has changed in the intervening decades since their classic, breakthrough release …And Out Come the Wolves. To be fair, there isn’t much that can be done in building upon an established punk framework without straying too far from the basic principles behind its creation; this is the purview of post-punks, art rockers and avant-garde experimentalists. True punks stick to the basics at all costs.
Of course, when the basics are just that, there’s little that can be done to grow musically or stylistically. Because of this, it’s easy to see why the most revered punk groups stuck around for only an album or two — what more can be said or done with such a self-imposed, limited palette from which to work? Indeed, the majority of punk groups who have continued to make strides for better or worse in new directions are those that ultimately end up straying from the simplistic tenants of punk (see: Green Day, the Clash, et. al.) This does not seem to concern Rancid in any way, shape or form. Having settled on a sound more than 20 years prior, they’ve continued to return time and again to the same territory. It’s an approach that, rightly so, can’t help but offer a fine example of the law of diminishing returns.
In other words, a 2017 Rancid album — in this case the newly-released Trouble Maker — is not all that different from a 1995 Rancid album. All of the same attitudes, sounds and sneers remain in approximately the same places, making for a paint-by-numbers approach to not only punk but songwriting in general. Thematically, there’s nothing here that strays more than a few degrees from everything else within the existing Rancid canon. Part of the problem is unintentionally expressed in “Where I’m Going”: “You see I don’t understand where I am, where I’ve been or where I’m going.” Not only does this imply a lack of self-awareness, but it also strongly recalls previous Rancid songs, particularly “Daly City Train” in its structure, ska-indebted rhythm, and general lyrical sentiments.
Similarly, “Farewell Lola Blue” is little more than an update of “Ruby Soho”, less the latter’s generous hook and earworm appeal. “All American Neighborhood” is an equally pointless exercise in punk attitude that falls well short of the intended social and political profundities to which it aspires. “Detroit engine knows how to scream / Two tons of chaos, American dream / Cambodia is now on fire / Richard Nixon is a goddamn liar” (“Bovver Rock and Roll”) is laughable for not only its simplistic rhyme scheme, invocation of an era that predates the original punks and faux-attitude, but for its evocation of that most un-punk of name-dropping anthems, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
As with any Rancid album, however, knowing what to expect seems to be largely the point. Why deviate too far from a sound, style, and approach that has worked so well in the past? Simply put, you know exactly what you’re going to get when you put on a Rancid album, for better or worse. Trouble Maker is more of the same; retreads of staid ideas, sounds and themes better suited to teenage ennui. “Follow your instinct always / Don’t ever doubt yourself / When the odds are small, don’t ever let ‘em stop you / Because we’ve only got a ghost of a chance,” they advise on “Ghost of a Chance”, putting into song form the lyrical equivalent of junior high-level yearbook profundities.
That said, they’ve lost little of their ability to squeeze the barest semblance of a hook out of a strangled punk melody. “Beauty of the Pool Hall” is as good as anything the band has produced to date both musically and melodically in its invocation of the early rock and roll that inspired the original punks. It’s a sentimental approach best expressed on “Buddy” when they sing, “I get nostalgic every time I think about you.” Indeed, Trouble Maker is little more than an exercise in wistful nostalgia that does little to further the firmly established Rancid template. They would’ve been better served to subscribe to their own sloganeering when they declare on “Say Goodbye to Our Heroes”, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Here they help substantiated that most punk of punk ideologies in that it truly is better to burn out than to fade away.