Achieving ‘Clarity’ Ten Years On: A Look At Against Me!’s Most Dense Record
Posted on September 17, 2015
September 17, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey
Ten-year anniversaries for albums are, to put it mildly, completely overdone. It’s impossible to pinpoint who pulled their card first, but over the past half-decade especially, as competition for the attention spans and entertainment dollars of perpetually distracted millennials has reached critical mass, the album anniversary tour has become a regular part of many band’s storylines. Nevermind that one of the large appeals of a live show is its inherent uncertainty, the thrill of not knowing the set list going in; these days fans don’t seem to crave spontaneity so much as they crave the ability to know when to hold their phone over their head to record 25 grainy seconds of live video, or to Snapchat their friends inaudible clips of their favorite song. Because if that shit isn’t recorded and uploaded online somewhere, well, did it ever happen? Were you even there, man?
I could regale you with an endless stream of useless Old Man Yells At Cloud-esque musings, but the overarching point is that ten-year anniversaries largely aren’t worth celebrating. Once you get a little older, you realize a decade really isn’t a very long time and, depending on your luck or lack thereof, not much will have changed in your or the band’s lives to warrant such laborious introspection. Time is a construct, an important one for contextualization, but a construct nonetheless. I’m a little sorer after a long shift at work now, and my knees occasionally ache, and my hair is far more gray than it used to be, but for the most part, I look and feel the same as I did ten years ago. Most of us probably do. Against Me! are a huge exception in this regard. Has any band endured as many distinctly different eras in such a relatively short amount of time as them? Their music, with few exceptions, has always had a quantifiably kinetic quality to it, which I realize now is an appropriate byproduct of their own constant evolution.
In 2005, Against Me! were at something of a crossroads. They’d earned a fervent following in the underground anarchopunk community in the years prior—at this point, the stories of roughshod bucket drums and impromptu Gainesville, Fla. laundromat shows are a well-traveled road in their narrative. The release of 2002’s Reinventing Axl Rose via No Idea and its driving, mostly electric instrumentation, anthemic choruses and intensely personal lyrics drew the attention of many outside the insular north Florida scene, namely Fat Wreck Chords, who at this point were just starting to veer ever so slightly in their identity as a heavily SoCal, or SoCal-influenced, punk label with the signings of bands like the Lawrence Arms and Dillinger Four. Drawing childish ire from an entitled swath of crust punks with debit cards who’d wrongly taken ownership of the band and their narrative, Against Me! signed with Fat for 2003’s As The Eternal Cowboy which, for all the internal machinations and external consternation surrounding it, remains a perfectly logical musical and lyrical follow-up to Axl; the album, chock-full of brief, energetic anthems that better and more clearly channeled the band’s musical prowess and Laura Jane Grace’s penchant for harshly memorable lyrics. It was by all accounts a creative success; to this day, AM! continue to pepper their live sets with several of its best songs.
The early to mid-2000s also marked a renaissance of sorts with regards to major labels’ interest in rock music. The early days of high-speed internet, as well as the waning moments of rampant file sharing, saw the dinosaurs looking to muster new revenue streams however they could, and however small, and also seeking to capitalize and co-opt underground movements for profit. Many labels snatched up dozens and dozens of bands, and promptly spit them out after the vast majority of them failed to demonstrate an ability to write a hit song, or even a memorable song at all. Punk rock’s inherent roots in fashion and style, no matter how much it pains me to write it and perhaps you to read it, remain eminently marketable. Leather jackets, tight jeans, pins and patches, poorly dyed hair, poorly-played guitars adorned with half-worn stickers, as innocuous as this all is to us, it spells sellable danger to white men in suits. Most punk music is upbeat, and quick, and catchy; three characteristics marketers, commercial directors and executives love. Hell, even veterans like Rancid and H2O received major label pay days in the 2000s as the wave was just beginning to crest.
After the release of Cowboy, Against Me! were seen as a hot commodity with untapped commercial appeal. Their sound, though not crazily different from what they’d been doing in the past, had become more marketable almost despite them; a band like AM! could easily be pushed onto fans of bands such as, say, the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. The labels came calling, but, Grace struggled with the attention and the conflicting nature of said attention with her roots and ideals, not to mention her internal struggles with her gender identity, which at this point were alluded to in much of AM!’s lyrics but not expanded upon. The 2004 DVD We’re Never Going Home chronicled much of the courting process, which of course ended with the band keeping their previously-agreed-upon deal with Fat Mike for a second record with his label.
It ended up working out, as that record, Searching for a Former Clarity, which turned ten years old earlier this month, proved to be a stark departure from the commercially-ready catchiness born on Cowboy. At 47 minutes, it’s almost twice as long as Cowboy, and while songs like “Don’t Lose Touch” and “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” maintained the band’s knack for quick, anthemic punk and could’ve been hit singles with the right timing and marketing plan, they’re mere outliers on a moody, dense, sprawling collection of deeply personal and affecting music. Like most of AM!’s discography, Clarity has aged considerably well—I maintain that time will eventually be very kind to the band’s two very good major label records, 2007’s New Wave and 2010’s White Crosses—even if much of it is still quite difficult to crack; it still feels more reflective than immediate, and much of the lyrics appear cloudy and open for interpretation, even as Grace covered a myriad of topics including a disconnect with the very industry game she and the band were just beginning to play; intensely political overtures at the height of the Iraq War and the crescendoing, but still post-9/11, paranoia-driven, manufactured, blind and acutely marketed American patriotism; drug use and the alienating, relationship-destroying, personal failings that often come along with it; and, as we would find out later, her gender dysphoria. For the most part, the jangly guitars that populated Cowboy and the band’s earlier work gave way to a thicker, fuller, heavier sound, which turned out to be the perfect pairing with Grace’s inspired howls and screams; James Bowman’s deep backup vocals and call-and-response with Grace were never better utilized than they were here, such as on “Even At Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most (The Roller)” and the aforementioned “Touch.” The rhythm section of bassist Andrew Seward and drummer Warren Oakes shines, too, Seward’s sinewy bass lines often interacting in lockstep with Oakes’ underrated frenetic percussion. J. Robbins’ dense production style suits a band like Against Me!, who’ve in all their iterations never needed much more than a small room with a few mics to create something memorable, but who benefit from being as loud and as imposing as humanly possible.
Clarity was met with critical acclaim upon its release but, as with every other AM! release before and (and since it, for that matter), fan response seemed to be initially mixed. In recent years, however, fans seemed to have warmed to it; those who were in their late teens or early 20s when it came out seem to get it now. It was always a dense record that required repeated listens to grasp, and perhaps the additional context in the ensuing years has helped it as well, but it’s now seen by many as the band’s crowning creative achievement. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s first LP after Grace publicly disclosed her true gender identity, is a vitally important record on a much larger scale than Clarity ever will be. Its context and importance is historical, not just in punk or music in general, but in society as a whole with regards to acceptance of transgender people, and discussion of the many issues they face. The public’s understanding of gender identity, though still in the early evolution process, is becoming more educated and nuanced every day. Grace’s very public coming out, and her use of her celebrity and platform to discuss these issues has been, and will continue to be, invaluable to many. It’s impossible to understate the importance of Transgender Dysphoria Blues. But musically, it’s a loud, angry, largely straightforward 28-minute punk rock record, because that’s what was required of the song’s lyrical content. In many ways it was a rebirth for AM!, a beginning of their second chapter as one of the most ferociously powerful rock bands in the world. Ten years on, Clarity feels like the exciting, action-packed climax of Against Me!’s first chapter, a clear snapshot of a band at the absolute height of their creativity and freedom to experiment.