No one remains a kid forever. Not even heart-on-the-sleeve punk-rockers like Tom Gabel, who started Against Me! back in Gainsville, Fla., as a furious one-man acoustic act. These days he doesn't nail the suits and government-sanctioned controllers to the wall with a fusillade of angry syllables that have the direct power of a pointed union song. The guy who sang "There are some of us who have, and some that go without/America and justice are not synonymous" on the youthful screed "The Politics of Starving" got a little older and polished up his game.
That bugged the hell out of true believers who planned on thrashing down at the all-ages club until they were 50. But after climbing the ladder from DIY projects to larger indie releases to a major label, Gabel (who plays the Majestic Theatre on Nov. 24) has no reason to wince at accusations that he's sold out to the soul-destroying evils of the music industry. True, Against Me!'s latest CD, the Butch Vig-produced New Wave, substitutes a more general sense of righteous indignation for Gabel's black-flag-waving endorsement of an anarchist revolution. But that's okay. Despite the album's pop/rock production, he's still got plenty of fire in his belly.
The full-on "White People for Peace" is one of his more interesting statements on the record. In interviews, Gabel now backs away from the word "punk" to describe his music, and this forceful depiction of the grim inertia of war demonstrates why. Instead of railing against predictable (yes, worthy) targets like President Bush and his Machiavellian circle, he takes a thinker's tack. When he spits, "Protest songs in a response to military aggression/Protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun/But the battle raged on," he wrestles with the seeming futility of opposing armed conflict. That's not something a callow soapbox Bakunin would ever do, and it's a sign of his maturation as an artist.
Not that Gabel doesn't come off as an idealist now and again. On the album's rousing title track he calls for a new kind of musical movement that leapfrogs the compromises and dead ends of the past. And when he sings, "We can become the bands we want to hear," he embraces the notion that the creative blurts of the latest generation are always worth hearing. No, he's not DIY anymore, but he lets the kids who are know that if they try, they really can make something powerful and new.
Without question, the shinier - one might even say "pop" - production of New Wave sometimes undercuts Gabel. He has a raw, compelling voice, and blunting its edge blunts his music. Reviews of Against Me!'s current tour say that the sheen falls away when Gabel hits the microphone, so concert-goers who want to feel his sweat and his passion and his rage as they bounce in unison at the lip of the stage will be taken care of.