Ryan Bray (RB): From the moment Rancid started leaking tracks from their new record a few weeks back, Honor Is All We Know had all the makings of a throwback record. But that’s not just the thinking of one Rancid diehard hoping the band would find their way back to the punk rock woodshed. Instead, the thought of tapping back into their roots seems to have hung over the band’s head while making their eighth record.
“I’ve been gone way too long and I’m back where I belong,” frontman Tim Armstrong asserts right off the bat on the rollicking lead track, “Back Where I Belong”. After the band started sanding down their edges in favor of a more overt pop sound on 2003’s Indestructible and later on 2009’s Let the Dominoes Fall, these are words many longtime Rancid fans have been waiting to hear. While it’s still a long ways from recapturing the lionhearted punk prowess of the band’s epic heyday, Honor Is All We Know is a healthy step back in the right direction. That taut sonic muscle that hasn’t been flexed quite as much in recent years is back, as is evident on the bruising lead single “Collision Course” and the melodic but forceful “In the Streets”. They’re not all successes: “Raise Your Fist” and “A Power Inside” lean too much on the band’s well-tread themes of brotherhood and solidarity. But the good certainly outweighs the bad, and it’s been a while since we could say that.
While Rancid are at that veteran stage of their career where new songs and records don’t seem to matter as much as the old ones do, I can’t shake the feeling that this one might have some staying power. Maybe that’s just the immediacy of hearing the songs for the first time. But on a gut level, these songs feel right, if that makes sense.
Collin Brennan (CB): Rancid have always skirted around the edges of unintentional self-parody, a problem that finally came to a head on Let the Dominoes Fall. On that album, Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, and co. grasped at straws to prove they were more punk rock than you and me. The laughably absurd, self-aggrandizing lyrics (“We’re the kings of the low-income block”) and tough-guy posturing were, ironically, indicative of a band who had lost touch with their roots even as they wouldn’t shut up about them.
Let the Dominoes Fall certainly had an agenda, but not a particularly interesting or well-executed one. Conversely, Honor Is All We Know seems content to let the chips fall where they may; here, at least, Rancid don’t sound like a wounded pitbull trying to prove it can still fight. I think that’s what you mean when you say these songs feel right on a gut level.
With that said, this isn’t exactly the Rancid of old. The band just wear their age more gracefully here, drawing on their extensive knowledge of rockabilly, reggae, and ska in ways that feel more fun than contrived. Upstrokes and call-and-response lyrics define the undeniably catchy “Evil’s My Friend”, which would have sounded right at home on the ska-tinged (and generally underrated) Life Won’t Wait. “Collision Course” does make for a rousing lead single, though its battle cry of “We’re on a mission!” contradicts the fact that Rancid finally sound like they have nothing to prove.
I’m especially drawn to “Already Dead”, on which Frederiksen sounds positively angry and Armstrong — for once — sounds like his old, slurry self and not the hoarse imitation that pops up elsewhere on Honor. Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion handles the production here, and his influence is apparent in a chorus that evokes the “oozin’ aahs” of his own band’s work. It’s a subtle touch that punk lifers will probably appreciate, but elsewhere the production sounds a bit too polished for its own good.
RB: I see what you mean. As a fan, I found myself trying to temper my want for the band to pull …And Out Come the Wolves Part Deux out of their sleeve with what can reasonably be expected from a band 23 years into the game. But the thing that’s always anchored Rancid’s best moments is heart, and Honor has more of it than what we’ve seen from the band over the last decade. It has more feeling, and to your point, I think that certainly comes from being a little deliberate about what they should or shouldn’t sound like. The idea that Rancid would have to strain to sound like Rancid after more than 20 years together is odd, but at least we see here that they’ve learned the lesson that they don’t have to force what comes pretty naturally to them.
Gurewitz and Rancid are a perfect punk rock match, like safety pins and patches, and it’s a partnership the band sounds completely at home with. It’s not as kinetic as their ’90s output, but at the same time, it doesn’t sound like they’re settling. Honor sounds like it was written from the vantage point of a veteran band, but it’s still the work of a veteran band who care. I’ll take that.
CB: That’s true, and there’s enough variety here to convince me that they aren’t simply going through the motions. With that said, I’ve grown a bit weary of the whole “brothers ‘til the bitter end” theme that has increasingly dominated Rancid’s lyrics. There are only so many ways to talk about honor and brotherhood in a punk song, and most of them aren’t exactly interesting.
It’s not surprising, then, that the title track ranks among the album’s blandest offerings, with by-the-numbers pop punk riffs bookending the vacuous refrain of “Honor is among us, honor is all we know.” (As an aside, Matt Freeman should stick to laying down lightning-fast bass riffs and stay away from the microphone. Armstrong may sound older and more haggard here than he ever has, but Freeman just sounds like one of those dads who’s really into motorcycles.)
We ranked Rancid’s top 10 songs last week, and I don’t feel as if our list warrants any reconsideration in light of Honor. I’ll agree with your earlier assessment that Honor is a healthy step back in the right direction, but there’s also no chance of it blossoming into a late-career classic. Given Rancid’s recent track record, longtime fans will find solace in hearing an album that sporadically rekindles the band’s earlier flame. They may never return to the heights of …And Out Come the Wolves, but these guys are also pushing 50, and there’s something to be said for raging against the dying of the light. At least here, that rage is palpable.
Essential Tracks: “In the Streets”, “Evil’s My Friend”, and “Already Dead”