Review Summary: Lost out, beat u- wait, no, nevermind.
I first heard "Swing Life Away" when I was 10 or 11, I think. It was a cheesy ballad from that band who usually rocked out, those guys who did "Prayer of the Refugee"; the kind of song I'd scoff at and brush off around my friends but secretly enjoy late at night, devouring it like a bar of chocolate under my sheets. It's always the songs you least expect that stay with you far longer than they should, attaching themselves to you as firmly as a brand. You can no more escape them than a character in a movie can escape the soundtrack to their scenes, and god knows the writer for my life really had a thing for "Swing Life Away". But it was okay – the charmingly, disarmingly honest song works wonders with its straightforward, ditty-like nature. Even the inescapable this is a ballad, guys, did you notice that we wrote a ballad?
nature doesn't bother me, coming as it does before Rise Against's finest song and most fiery statement of purpose, "Rumors of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated". Tim feels every fucking last word on "Swing Life Away" as he sings them out, and I do my part and I believe them all as I sing along. Am I loud and clear, or am I breakin' up?
I first heard Wolves
a few days ago. As the latest rung on an increasingly shaky and unstable ladder, I was less than eager to put myself through it, budget Nine Inch Nails artwork and all. In theory, a year as politically shaky as 2017 is the perfect time for a Rise Against album, and its release coinciding with the Comey inquiry seems like a particularly fortuitous bit of luck that might just create the illusion of relevance or meaning. The thing is, though, if you'll permit me to borrow the buzzword-iest of Shakespeare lines; Wolves
is a whole bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Tim is angry about some stuff, to be sure, but he's angry about so many badly defined things he ends up running out of things to say and just sort of vaguely gesturing at said things to his left and right – look at how bad this is, and oh, have you seen the state of this? Dear me, just awful
, like an entitled soccer mum at a game where her beloved son has lost. "I'm sorry to say, but this is bullshit" he actually repeats over and over at one point like a mantra, sounding like your garden-variety opinionated hack screaming into the digital void. "There must something in the water, yeah there's something in the air!", like Joel McHale's character in the X-Files revival. Even at their most lyrically obtuse, Siren Song of the Counter Culture
and The Sufferer and the Witness
always had that echo of truth at their heart: songs with names like "Drones" and "State of the Union" were always offset by something heartfelt and genuine, unasked for but freely given. Moments like "Paper Wings" and "The Good Left Undone" and, you guessed it, "Swing Life Away"; little reminders that every political activist and vigilante has a reason to be so angry, something precious to defend. But hey, if in 2017 you're in the mood for a completely inane outline of a thought that somehow makes up a chorus, you're in for a real treat when "Far From Perfect" busts out the generation-defining "we are far from perfect, but perfect as we are!!!"
It doesn't help that the music in general is so stubbornly tepid. Sure, overall it's a step up from The Black Market
, but there's nothing here that gives the hope of Rise Against vaguely recalling what they used to be good at like "People Live Here" did. From the band that wrote "The Dirt Whispered" and "Life Less Frightening", it's straight up depressing how lukewarm and flaccid literally every chorus on this album is, like the chords and melodies were composed in a windowless, sterile room by a semi-sentient Tim McIlrath clone. "Welcome to the Breakdown" and "Miracle" make a nice trilogy with "The Eco-Terrorist in Me" by giving a very decent, almost convincing impersonation of the Rise Against that actually cared, and all three are just angry enough to pass as a paper mache 'we're punk again!' likeness for the desperate few. Okay, so Wolves
has energy, some passion, and what can just about occasionally pass for a punk attitude. But that's not what was missing, and it never was. It was never Tim's increasingly weak screams (Sufferer
had a total of two songs with screaming, for reference), or the anti-government calls to arms, or the admittedly much-mourned tempo changes that would happen just for the sake of it. What's missing here, what's been missing for years, is just a "Swing Life Away". Something fragile and self-indulgent and real. We never ever doubted that you know how to be political, Rise Against. We just doubted that you still know how to be real.