Looking back on the West Coast punk rockers’ greatest album
Punk has become so unrecognizable that Rancid — once the style’s most archetypal ‘90s band — no longer has a lane.
Really, heard any good street-punk or gutter-punk bands lately? Okay, so, actually yes: In the 2020s, Chubby and the Gang and the Chisel are among an incestuous collective of new hardcore offshoots bringing back the garbled gang-vocals, rough Pogues inflections, and slogan-chanting that harks back to Oi! legends like the Business while folk-punk “I Fought the Law” chord progressions and even harmonica dot the compositions.
But that’s a radar blip compared to the overwhelmingly popular factions of pop-punk, emo and increasingly re-relevant hardcore, or Frankenstein’d combinations like skramz. The painted mohawks and spiked-leather punks of tuneful, shout-along choruses on 90-second anthems and tenuous reggae and ska connections derived from The Clash is just simply something people no longer do, wear, or look like. But before Blink-182 changed everything, that was ‘90s punk. Emo was in its infancy. Green Day sold tens of millions because there was only one Green Day. The Offspring combined Orange County slacker-frat misanthropy with riffs cribbed from surf and Saudi Arabia and character voices literally out of 1-800-Collect commercials.
The rest all dumped themselves into Warped Tours, Give ‘em the Boot and Fat Wreck Chords and Punk-O-Rama comp CDs, big packages stuffed with dozens of bands like NOFX, Pennywise and Lagwagon who played various ratios of pop-punk-ska-core. But especially peaking around 1997, airplay was awarded to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, No Doubt in their imperial phase and no one blinked at punk of the day dipping into both lanes. It’s safe to say that ska was the reason the former Ivy operatives in Rancid broke out at all: “Time Bomb” wasn’t just their first hit, it was one of their first ska songs, period, after the winsome meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll of 1994’s excellent Let’s Go, which kind of perfected and exhausted a formula in one go.
After cementing several new standards with the following year’s …And Out Come the Wolves (which began with “Maxwell Murder,” the fastest song I had ever heard in my life up to that point, thanks to Chuck Eddy, who gave it an A+ in Entertainment Weekly and my dad, who bought it based on said review), Rancid took three years to return with Life Won’t Wait, just barely missed the ska window closing as a commercial path, and made — with love to the tuneful surprises of 2003’s Indestructible like “Arrested in Shanghai” — their least formulaic and most varied album. The tenderness of “Radio” and choppy reggae chords of “Time Bomb” were no longer outliers here; it’s instantaneous hey-ho anthems like the flawless leadoff “Bloodclot” that were in short supply. Not only is Life Won’t Wait the most detailed and textured music of Rancid’s career, you’d be hard-pressed to find other punk albums from any era with this level of…noir. Except for the Clash, of course, whose promise they were unconsciously fulfilling. I’d say they earned those comparisons; Life Won’t Wait is nowhere near as indelible as London Calling but probably a smoother listen than Sandinista!, and its potency falls somewhere between the two.
Very quickly after the almost false start of “Bloodclot” and its world-class bass moves (Matt Freeman is a world-class punk bassist, period), “Hoover Street” sets the stage for what Life really trafficks in. “She’s a Salvadorian immigrant, hear her through thin walls / A frail hooker, holding up corner walls / Gleaming skyscraper bunker he looked down / Laughed hysterically and L.A. spread around” is fractured street journaling closer to hip-hop than Swingin’ Utters (no wonder they’re Tom Breihan’s favorite band). There is an anthemic chorus, sort of, a tower of cresting “oh yeahs” that builds not from crashing urgency but Tim Armstrong muttering these details over a downbeat rhythm, patient glockenspiel, and a nearly whispered refrain about “glass-pipe murder.” Life Won’t Wait was recorded in Jamaica and its stories don’t sound like the narrator’s homebase. They sound like world reportage, like someone consciously using their newfound visibility and economic windfall to see and comprehend places unfamiliar.
As with Wolves, the 22 songs become less memorable in the second half and start to blur together, with a bit much emphasis on cheesy love gestures like “Who Would’ve Thought” and “Corazón de Oro,” which is not a Neil Young cover en español despite the Wait album art’s obvious resemblance to After the Gold Rush. But like Wolves, that first half is astounding. The pumping, shout-along ska of “Hooligans,” their best shot at replicating the unforgettable “Time Bomb,” gives way to the menacing, judgment-day reggae of “Crane Fist.” The Buju Banton-assisted title track is even more apocalyptic in the genre’s Babylon-focused way. “Cash, Culture and Violence” builds an anti-corruption vehicle from noisy guitar harmonics and unmistakable interjections from the Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett himself. “Black Lung” and “New Dress” are instructive opposites of the same coin: the actual punk songs here sound more like dissonant excursions (“1998” singlehandedly invented Transplants) and classic rock, respectively. If you loaded Let’s Go and …Out Come the Wolves with more than 40 foursquare anthems designed solely to deliver a bombastic knockout chorus to your jaw and be shouted back at them from the pit, you’d want to try something else, too.
VIDEO: Rancid “Bloodclot”
Thusly, Life Won’t Wait is easily the Rancid album you’re most likely to keep discovering through more listens than one giant gulp, and it’s a mild shame that after 2003 they mostly retired their exploration of ska, reggae and harmonica, though in 22 songs over an hour, there’s plenty here to last. I personally have a soft spot for albums where an artist at the peak of their powers attempts their most ambitious, risky, worldly effort as if they’re gonna remain on top afterward.
Many, many acts deal with success worse than Rancid did as they took full advantage of their 15 minutes, and from the dope-dealing diary “1998” among several others they laid out all the low lives they didn’t want to live. So they didn’t wait.
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