13 October 2008

an attempt at saying something meaningful about punk rock

There's a quote from Pablo Picasso on the inside cover of the new Rise Against album (Appeal to Reason) about how how all works of art are really instruments of war, that they're engaged somehow in the immediate world around them.

Regardless of whether or not you'd consider yourself an "artist," I think engagement with the world around you is an essential element of anybody's behavior. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why some of my favorite records in the past few years (Pearl Jam's self-titled album, Green Day's American Idiot, Eddie's Into the Wild soundtrack, and, if we're willing to go back a few more years, The Rising, among others) have wound up being records dealing pretty directly with the
events of the day. That's at least part of why all of those protest songs from the '60s have the legs they do (well, that and the fact that they're just good songs).

There's a difference, though, between records like The Rising and those like, say, the Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs (and still further difference between those two and Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, which doesn't do much to furthe
r my point, but is interesting to think about, regardless). That is to say, there's a difference between being timely, and handcuffing yourself to a single moment in time. Let's take a moment to compare some of the lyrics in Springsteen's "Into the Fire" to the Boys' "It Takes Time To Build." First, Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D:

"
You wanna change things up, well hey just get set/
It's easier to sit back than stick out your neck/
It's easier to break things than build it correct/
We've got a president we didn't elect/
The Kyoto treaty he decided to neglect/
And still the US just wants to flex/
Keep doin' that wop we gonna break our necks"

And now, Springsteen:

"
You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown/
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down/
Up the stairs, into the fire/
Up the stairs, into the fire/
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher/
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire"

This might not be a fair comparison, given Springsteen's inherent lyrical superiority, but, in a lot of ways, that's at the heart of the matter here. Both of the albums on which these songs are contained deal, to varying degrees, with the fallout from the events of the 11th of September, 2001 (I'm making an early New Year's resolution to avoid using "9/11" wherever possible - it's time to reclaim it from the evil wing of the Republican party), but they do it in vastly different ways. The Beastie Boys turn their vitriol to a very specific person, in the finest rap tradition of calling out a foe (see: pretty much every feud between rappers since the dawn of time), while Springsteen speaks in somewhat broader terms, ones not completely married to this specific moment in time, leading up to this election.

[Let's take a second to admit that, yes, the Beastie Boys' "An Open Letter to NYC" is a very sincere, very moving song, and I mean them no disrespect in their tribute to their hometown. But, let's be honest here: Springsteen vs the Beastie Boys. On perceived artistic merit alone, the Boss emerges victorious. But I'm losing sight of the point with every sentence I type.]

Rhymes about George II and Kyoto date themselves moments after they're spoken; whatever sort of power the words have, well, they fade with time. Eventually, the current audience (who you've got to hope will be listening to your music in decades time, right? Why create unless it's intended to endure?) won't appreciate your cracks about how we're "strung out on OPEC" - hopefully - in the way that the listeners of today will. Bruce's extolling of the virtue of the selfless sacrifice of the firefighters who saved as many as they could before they, themselves, fell... well, it carries a lot more weight. But, then again, it's supposed to.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I think there's a fine line between "timeless" and "generic," just as there is between "timely" and "dated."

But now, to the point: the new Rise Against album, Appeal to Reason.

I did not manage to discover Rise Against on my own; I had managed to swear off anything resembling "punk rock" during my "metal" phase in high school (with the notable exceptions of Green Day - always thought Billie Joe was smarter than people gave him credit for, and American Idiot proved me right - and Bad Religion) and had continued along that merry path up until Adam pretty much ordered me to listen to The Sufferer and The Witness. You could've considered me a convert to the church of Rise Against after the first four tracks on the album.

Someone once said that the great thing about punk rock is that it all sounds awesome at first, so primal and accessible is it, but the other great thing about it is that it doesn't take too much listening time to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were (I'm taking great liberties with phrasing, here). It's not difficult to figure out whether Dookie is a better album than anything Good Charlotte has released, or will ever release, even though it's pretty obvious that they all loved the exact same sort of music growing up.

I remember the rise of what I'm going to refer to as "high school punk" (or "pop punk") during, interestingly enough, my time in junior high (high school, sadly, comprised the salad days of the boy band explosion - how excited was I when I got to college and found out there were bands where people actually played instruments?). Blink 182-type bands. It was kind of cool, at first: fast, funny, and easy to like from the start. But, it didn't go anywhere. It didn't say anything that hadn't already been said better earlier.

Rise Against, though, trades in significantly more than whining about girls from high school. Rise Against wants to change the world, or at least wake us up so that we're able to realize what sort of damage we're wreaking upon it. That's a sentiment I can get behind.

It's kind of like the flip side of the UN album, in a lot of ways. Appeal to Reason is very well-produced, very listener-friendly (much of the album could, and probably will, find a home on contemporary hard rock radio, and that's not a bad thing, I don't think), and very... musical. It's anthemic ["Re-Education (Through Labor)], assaulting ("From Heads Unworthy"), and heart-breaking ("Hero of War" - I bet everyone in the world can call this song out as cliche, but would you care to tell me when a cliche isn't a cliche? When you - the person producing it - believe in it sincerely), all traits I suppose you could ascribe to that "most important" of art, the timeless art. Oh, and the music supports the lyrics - I don't think there's a moment that you could accuse the words of taking a backseat to the power chords.

Oh, yes, the words. Significantly more important in punk rock, I think, due to the relative simplicity of the music (as compared to, say, Dream Theater). The point should be to get your point across. Here's how the first song, "Collapse (Post-Amerika)" opens:

"When our rivers run dry and our crops cease to grow/
And when our summers grow longer and winters won’t snow/
From the banks of the ocean and the ice in the hills/
To the fight in the desert where progress stands still/
When we’ve lost our will

That’s how we’ll know
/
This is not a test, oh no/
This is cardiac arrest/
Of a world too proud to admit our mistakes/
We're crashing into the ground as we all fall from grace"

Getting the point across, like I say. Let's use one more example, from my favorite song on the album, "The Dirt Whispered:"

"
She got down on hands and knees, one ear against the ground,/
Holding her breath to hear something, but the dirt made not a sound tonight

Echoes of songs still lurk on distant foreign shores, where we/
Danced just to please the gods that only ask for more, and so it goes

But still we give ourselves to this/
We can't spend our lives waiting to live"

This isn't to demean the musical abilities of the band, mind you. They're all skilled musicians, though I'd be remiss in my reaction-writing if I didn't say that I think the guitarist on The Sufferer & The Witness was a little... punchier than the new one.

There are too few records anymore that can sustain themselves beyond the first four tracks, but Appeal to Reason is solid pretty much throughout. The last thing you'd want to do is to see your argument fall apart in the last 10 or 12 minutes, right?

This is what "high school punk rock" should be, frankly: timeless, in a weird sort of way. That is to say, it can cut across a generational gap, so hopefully in the way that some parents are introducing their children to the "rebellious" music of their youth, the children of today could someday pass along their copy of Appeal to Reason to their children, for the points Rise Against makes today will be points worth making in the future, I believe.

It took a mainstream political campaign in 2008 to finally put into practice what many musicians have been saying all along: mobilize the youth. Let's hope it works, for all our sakes.

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