Baptism by Fire

The punk brothers in arms of Rancid use the sound of the past to engage the present.

PUNK ROCK TAUGHT us there are no rehearsals. Pack as much as you can into one punch and swing hard, whether or not you know how to fight. The present is where you do your living, where your life matters most. The California punks in Rancid don’t love life as much as they love living. They subsistand get offon nowness. “Sartre was right about engagement,” punk-rock sociologist Dr. Donna Gaines wrote in A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart. “Nothing feels better than belonging to something you really believe in and working hard to move it forward.”

Bands are familial, and few match Rancid’s bond. Hip-hop stars flaunt their entourages like Crystal, Bentleys, and bling. But there’s a hierarchy. Even in lifer bands like Metallica, it’s obvious James Hetfield rules and the other three are his bitches. Rancid are a different breed of brotherly band. It’s all for one and one for all. The guys are often photographed in a pack, arms around each other, forming a tattooed nucleus. On the aptly titled Indestructible (Hellcat), they hold each other together, literally.

Life sucks sometimes, as Rancid have known well in the three years since their second self-titled and fifth overall album. The passing away of iconic influences, mentors, and friends Joe Strummer and Dee Dee and Joey Ramone undoubtedly provided a jolt to the band’s already acute sense of mortality. Even closer to home was the death of singer-guitarist Lars Frederiksen’s older brother, Robert. And singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong’s wife, Brody (frontwoman of up-and-coming band the Distillers), abruptly left him.

If music were to reflect Rancid’s recent hardships, their latest album should sound just like their self-titled one from 2000a smattering of too-big mouthfuls of rusty razors and lemon juice. Instead, the quartet delivers its most deliberately celebratory work to date. Armstrong’s rebirth opens the album. “It’s so fake now, everything I see right through,” he exclaims on the title track; later, he swears he’s “dancin’ now to a whole different drummer.” (Maybe he’s thinking of the album he made last year with the Transplants, which featured Blink-182 skinsman Travis Barker.) But instead of making veiled references to pain, they beat it to the punch. In the booklet, a note precedes each block of lyrics, exposing the basis of the song. Indestructible‘s upbeat undercurrents and affirmations bleed through rousing melodies that would have you believe Rancid are lucky sons of bitches, especially Armstrong.

His eagerness to show off his support system was reflected by choosing the bouncy, ska-kissed punk track “Fall Back Down” as Indestructible‘s first single. “It takes a disaster to learn a lesson,” Armstrong declares. After Frederiksen and bassist-singer Matt Freeman chime in over his shoulder, “She’s not the one comin’ back for you,” all three sing the buoyant chorus like it’s dogma: “If I fall back down, you’re gonna help me back up again/If I fall back down, you’re gonna be my friend.” His gluey rasp sounds wise and mellowsomething of a shock in any punk band, even one as fluent with slower tempos. You can hear that command throughout Indestructible. “I’m not looking for a fight now,” Armstrong implores above a choirlike chorus of ascending “ahhh”s on “Start Now.” “So release the dove into flight now so we can start right now.” On “Arrested in Shanghai,” his soft, scratchy voice depicts a humble, rational man blocking out the world’s lunacy by keeping peace within his own heart.

That goes double for the more personal material here. Armstrong’s “Ghost Band” and “Tropical London” are bittersweet postdivorce songs. On the island-tinged “London,” organs wheeze with a warm sweetness like butterscotch breezes as he laments, “Losing you, girl, wasn’t part of the plan.” He’s disappointed, but not destroyed; he refuses to turn lyrically or musically vengeful. There’s no reason to put his heart in the past when the present is what engages him. That’s one reason “Otherside,” passionately shouted by Frederiksen for his brother, has more spirited bite than any other track on Indestructible. “Lesson taught well, lesson learned, you told me not to mourn,” he bellows. The classic whiff of rambunctious punk love spins this eulogy into an uprising.

While Rancid’s brand of music is rooted in U.K. punk circa 1977, they’re not stuck in the past. Even better, they still communicate a glee for punk’s possibilities, both musically and as a mind-set. Indestructible doesn’t leave anyone lying down, especially the vulnerable. “Back Against the Wall” offers support for an unemployed single mother trying get a job so she can feed her family, and “Stand Your Ground,” replete with jungle drumming, is dedicated to the homeless. “Stand your ground till you’re the last one in town,” Armstrong bids over steely strings. He speaks not to the heart or soul, but to the guta street kid’s foremost weapon of survival. It’s enough to make you feel indestructible through the most epic of shit storms.