There’s a great scene in Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’s genuinely moving documentary The Other F Word where Lars Frederiksen is giving a talking head on being a father and says, “Sometimes you think about, you know, ‘Oh shit, should I have tattooed my forehead?’” He’s talking about his influence on his son, how the life he led, and continues to lead, as the bassist in the California-based punk rock juggernaut Rancid is shaping his parental morals. Despite the way it comes off, the quote isn’t about regret but more along the lines of “What’s next?” After all, punk rock isn’t supposed to live to see 50.
Maybe this is the reason another one of Rancid’s founding members sounds so apathetic on his newest release with hardcore/rap side project The Transplants. The album, In A Warzone, is technically the band’s third but could be more accurately classified as a Tim Armstrong pallet cleanser, something meant to clear his obviously cluttered head.
Once notably a premiere punk tastemaker at Hellcat Records and mastermind behind the Grammy Winning “Trouble” (a song that helped give birth to the snarling, scream-y version of P!nk we’re still stuck with today), Armstrong is working through something a less aware critic might call a midlife crisis. But it’s more of a post-life crisis, one that finds the guy who took the Joe Strummer slur and mangled it beyond recognition, asking, “What’s next?”
In A Warzone doesn’t answer that question. It’s not a step forward or even necessarily a step back. It’s kind of just a sonic deposit; a collection of creatively frustrated tracks Armstrong probably just needed to get off his chest. More cynically, I’d point out that In A Warzone might just be something to tour behind; a mechanism that gives Armstrong back his roving voice without having to meet any legitimate expectations. It’s also a chance for the Grammy-hungry songwriter to work with Bun B and Paul Wall.
So what do you get when you invest in an album like this one? You get “See It To Believe It”, the type of sluggish, sing-along anti-anthem Rancid used to sell on spark alone, but it sounds like an empty nightclub here. You also get “Something’s Different”, a piano-sampling, Bun B featuring rap track that never picks a direction. There are moments that sound brilliantly volatile, like it could explode into the “Romper Stomper” growls of their first record, but then it shoots for a quasi-Jurassic 5 vibe but never quite locates the right pace. And you get “It’s A Problem”, a song that trades in punk’s most inventive drummer for a whirring machine beat so that Paul Wall can wax drugged poetic in a roomy spotlight. While it’s true that Travis Barker is absurdly underutilized throughout the entire record (he’s given the most to do on “Silence”, a song that turns out to be so poorly put together that Tim Armstrong’s voice bottoms out completely near the end), this is Armstrong’s most egregious offense, putting his production sins on par with Kanye’s decision to auto-tune R. Kelly.
All the problems with the record, though, are what ends up making it worth listening to. It’s certainly odd, but there’s something genuinely compelling about witnessing the failed creative leaps of a post-life punk, and seeing what someone who never thought their career would make it here does when they’ve “made it”. On “Back to You”, the album’s most foucused track, Armstrong sings, “One day this’ll be over/And I’m gonna be singin’ the blues/But that day ain’t here yet, no/So I’m gonna be pushin’ through.” Tim Armstrong isn’t dead yet. He’s just a zombie.