When singer Tom Gabel pleadingly screams for a “band that plays loud and hard every night,” it’s not an accusation of failure on the part of the scene. It’s a challenge. And it’s a challenge Florida punk band Against Me! grabs by the throat. Easily one of the most divisive bands in modern punk, Against Me! first carved its niche with 2002’s Reinventing Axl Rose. Building off the success of a handful of acoustic EP’s, the switch to electric instruments on their first full length was but a hint of the dramatic changes in store to their base sound. Both virulent and melodic, raw and heartfelt; Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose is a modern classic.
“Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” opens the album with a bouncy snare driven ballad that lingers on the ghost of a tragedy; telling a story as verbosely as one can with the medium. It’s here that we first encounter Gabel’s poly-syllabic approach to songwriting. Twisted cadences that turn sometimes rhymed paragraphs of text into sing-a-longs are a hallmark of his uniquely cumbersome songwriting style. The fact that he can even fit a line like “Evelyn sits by the elevator doors /It’s been 37 years since James died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1964,” into a melody is as impressive as it is defining to their sound. Other stand out tracks include “Walking Is Still Honest” and the oft spoken of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” To be honest though, picking a couple of favorites doesn’t really do the album justice. Its greatest strength is most definitely its consistency.
Regardless of one’s opinion on anarchy, Reinventing Axl Rose remains enjoyable due to a deft and personal approach to political punk. It’s not about political revolution, but personal evolution. The songs are upbeat and anthemic. “And we rock, Because it’s us against them. We found our own reasons to sing,” from “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious…,” is an example of this new initiative to look inward for the battlefront and conquer yourself before taking to the streets. In a world where lines are constantly blurred and maps constantly redrawn, knowing yourself can be just as bloody a battle.
Except for the rather dull and derivative ending track, “8 Full Hours of Sleep,” the album is about as close to the impressive ‘All Killer, No Filler’ badge as possible. It does have to be said though, the ending track does sour the experience slightly. Where “8 Full Hours of Sleep” is concerned, failures become apparent immediately. The opening guitar is just a little too similar to the one on “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!,” and the relative slow pace compared to the rest of the album feels something akin to jogging into a lake of quicksand.
But the fact remains, for ten of the eleven tracks, Reinventing Axl Rose is an exhilarating listen. The instrumentation is raw and evokes the dirtiness of The Clash’s self-titled while the lyrics maintain enough subtlety to open themselves up to interpretation and simultaneously keep a strong foothold in heartfelt Replacements style rock. There’s a reason this album’s something of a punk rock cliche. Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose was like a first lover for some people. Internet discussions inevitably become Internet wars when it comes to Against Me!, but even the most bitter exhibit a certain wary fondness for Reinventing Axl Rose. Sure, they changed, but we can all remember how they made us feel the first time.