A Phoenix in a Holding Pattern: The Offspring's Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace

Dexter Holland, in a recent article, made a point to downplay the significance they had on his success. His band, The Offspring, have spent their whole career as the Salieri to Green Day’s Mozart. While The Offspring have had the kind of career that their Cali-punk peers would have never fathomed possible when they formed in the mid-’80s, they’ve always been a half-step behind Billie Joe Armstrong & Co.

Green Day were the ones to break MTV’s punk cherry with “When I Come Around” in the mid-’90s; The Offspring came next with “Come Out and Play” and made it a trend. Later on in the ’90s, Green Day broke out of the “alternative” ghetto in the music biz and reached the Starbucks set with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”; not much later The Offspring capitalized on the multi-million dollar industry that mainstream punk rock had become, scoring with the (let’s face it) novelty hits “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) and “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”. Afterwards, both bands sunk into the doldrums of irrelevance; overshadowed by twinkie bands that were young enough to have grown up on the music that these guys had made less than ten years earlier.

In 2004, Green Day broke into the kind of stratosphere that transcends all music industry marketing and teenybopper trendhopping. They released American Idiot and achieved the rare feat of capturing a generation’s zeitgeist in one piece of art—an album that was both raw with personal honesty and informed uniquely by the politics of its time. It managed to catch fire with the kids of the same Starbucks set who probably bought Nimrod six years earlier and casual listeners not unlike those that bought Dookie ten years previous. American Idiot is one of the only truly great and truly timeless rock albums from this decade, and my grandkids will be reading retro reviews of it long after we’re gone. Meanwhile, The Offspring were recording forgettable albums with songs like “The Worst Hangover of All Time” or some such nonsense. Like I said, in a recent article, Dexter Holland made it clear that American Idiot is a dirty word. He played it off like the whole Green Day thing was just a coincidence, but his reticence served more to prove that Green Day’s achievement shook him. On their new record, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, The Offspring are clearly trying to shake off their has-been status and take their own hack at immortality.

A Little History from Your Host

I have a deep love for The Offspring that goes beyond any kind of better/worse comparison or punk elitist cred. In 1994 I was an early-pubescent 9-year-old that was outgrowing Nickelodeon and looking for something new to keep my afternoons occupied during the frigid 4 or 5 month winters here in upstate NY. I flicked over to MTV and the first video I saw was The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play”. The hypnotic, Egyptian-esque bassline and lyrics that seemed to just vaguely hint at signifying the kinds of important social issues that I was just barely becoming conscious of sucked me in. The scratchy, washed-out video footage actually looked like the images I would see in my (lowly autistic and probably disturbed) brain when I closed my eyes. The grunge-punk melange fashions of the otherwise average-looking band members was the first thing to give me that “Aha! I can do this!” moment—with which any real punk fan should be familiar—gave me a hint that there was actually a world outside my shitty little town where people didn’t all look and act the same.

I was interested enough to convince my grandmother to buy me The Offspring’s Smash on cassette, and I would bring it around town with me on my yellow Sony BassMaster boombox and listen to it on the playground where some kids my age were still playing hopscotch (and trust me, parents just loved it when I played “Bad Habit” at top volume). While I never had any “older brother” type to introduce me to what was hip in the punk world, I eventually caught onto the whole Green Day phenomenon, and dutifully became obsessed with Dookie. Not long after, Rancid’s video for “Salvation” started getting play and by then I was hooked; I shaved my head and became the only punk in Nightingale Elementary School.

My interest in popular music actually all spiraled out of that one day I happened to catch an Offspring video on TV. In the coming years, my tastes would deepen and vary, but I can always look back and say that it was The Offspring first. Every late night curled up with headphones and a Rolling Stone, every bruise I suffered in a mosh pit as a teenager; hell, even the fact that I’m sitting here right now writing these words, is all because of The Offspring. Whatever… it might not be the coolest thing to admit, but it’s the truth. Part of what warmed my young mind to music was countless nights next to a stereo, poring over the lyric sheets to Offspring and Green Day albums. And the other day when I was sent Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, I did just that for the first time since I was a kid. Or at least since American Idiot came out.

Oh Yeah… the Album

Despite all that you’ve just read, I had written The Offspring off completely. Some bands just need the benefit of hindsight. I really would have felt better liking The Offspring these last few years if they hadn’t been putting out a bunch of half-ass albums for no one, saying nothing.

On Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, on the other hand, they swing for the fences—the songs attempt both political and personal significance in a way that’s a little more straightforward than The Offspring usually attempt. Since 1997’s criminally underrated Ixnay on the Hombre, the band has been, more than anything, an arena-punk band. Arena-punk might sound like an oxymoron, but truthfully, a lot of great punk rock has been made that pays a little more attention to production values and aims for Row 36 EEE rather than the back of a dive bar. For this effort, The Offspring have signed on Metallica guru/producer Bob Rock. Much like the esteemed Butch Vig, Bob Rock has always come across as a professional turd polisher; someone who takes a basically gritty genre and tarts it up for the masses. So its a natch that he could take The Offspring and make their sound glisten in a way that they haven’t in a long time.

Songs like the album opener “Half-Truism” and the lead off single “Hammerhead” have a caterwauling dirge that sounds uniquely Bob Rock. While there’s always been a dark side to The Offspring and they set a precedent for dour minor-key numbers in their genre, Rock nearly bridges the gap and makes the songs sound nearly metal.

“Hammerhead” starts out with lyrics that sound like the point of view of a young soldier at war, a subject they covered on their first album’s “Tehran” and its 2004 revamp “Baghdad”, that was featured on the Rock Against Bush Vol. 1 compilation. In this day and age, and speaking to the kind of populist audience they usually do, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that age has softened the political righteousness of a once intelligent and outspoken leftist band. Then the final verse flips the script, referring to “[cowering] behind your desk” and “teacher, please help me.” While school shooting as a subject is so ten-years-ago (and my apologies if you go to Virginia Tech), the effect is at least interesting in “Hammerhead” because you get all the way through the song and then it makes you wonder what it is that you’ve been listening to. It’s a cool effect, but not exactly a radio-friendly single, and not one that’s gonna break The Offspring through to any doubters.

A better choice of single would have been “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”. Imagine, if you will, that you took an upbeat Offspring song from their poppier side and adapted it to the kind of disco-punk that Fall Out Boy and new Good Charlotte seem to be trafficking in. The “dance, f*cker, dance” refrain is reminiscent of “Kick Him When He’s Down” from Ignition, and it’s the first real display I’ve heard from journeyman drummer Josh Freese on an Offspring record. Not that he fills the track with a lot of John Bonham fills, but he and bass player Greg K lock into a solid groove, and overall, it’s a standout track that highlights The Offspring’s superior rhythm skills.

Back to the shadow of American Idiot, it’s most obvious on “Nothing Town”, a blatant ape of “Jesus of Suburbia” in the lyrical content, with a beat that harkens that song’s “Dearly Beloved” suite. Despite not being their most original track, the lyrics are at least a little sweet (“I’ll scream so you can hear it / Hold on tighter with my lighter shining through”) and the teenagers-in-love-and-on-the-run theme doesn’t feel forced coming from Holland, who is himself actually a father of teenagers. Rise and Fall‘s attempt at “Wake Me Up When September Ends”-style personal honesty is the paean to a possibly abused girl from his past in “Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?”

Similarly, “Stuff Is Messed Up” is the most blatantly topical song on this record, griping about the insanity of our consumerist nation to a “Rock and Roll Part 2” beat. Unfortunately, these songs fall a little short of their goal—the former is too sickly sweet and seems more like Dexter trying to summon a name from his past that would make a good song rather than someone that actually affected him, while the latter loses points for pussing out in the title (the refrain is “shit is f*cked up”). “Fix You” might be The Offspring’s most blatant stab at emo, and while the song is a little saccharine, the lyrical sentiment should resonate with anyone who’s ever loved someone who didn’t deserve it.

While most of the rest of the album is filled with tracks that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a vintage Offspring record, and definitely show that their trademark sound hasn’t diminished over time, the one song that might actually convince someone that The Offspring could be as important as Green Day has become is “A Lot Like Me”. On the surface, it’s a slow song that one could write off as just another punk-rock anti-rich folk song. The problem is, I don’t know about you churren, but I will immediately dismiss any band that’s sold millions of dollars but writes lyrics about being dirt-floor poor. I know that a band’s bank account doesn’t have any bearing on their actual talent but I can’t in good conscience buy a song as being truly from the soul if it’s based on a lie. “A Lot Like Me” deftly sidesteps this problem by admitting it outright—those asshole rich people leading empty lives are now The Offspring’s peers, and anyone who owns his own airplane can’t cast the first stone at someone else for their Citizen Kane existence. The track does something that is akin to heresy amongst most punk bands—it shows a little empathy for the people living a hollow life padded by money, and dares to look inward to understand that there might be more to the story than just mindless greed.

Somewhere Between Rise and Fall

It didn’t make it. Sorry to end this tale on a down note, kids, but Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace will not be the yin to American Idiot‘s yang. Of course, if you ask Dexter Holland et al., they weren’t trying to be. I’m sure that there could be a lot of other things that reinvigorated The Offspring since their last record and pushed them to try a little harder and take one last stab at relevance. But let’s face it; culturally, The Offspring and Green Day will always be intertwined like the Beatles and Stones or Ramones and Sex Pistols before them.

There’s light at the end of this tunnel, though. When Green Day went back to the studio recently, the idea was to come out with their follow-up to Idiot, which would be a daunting task for any band, let alone one that spent the last few years before that sounding neutered and sedate. Instead of a new Green Day album, they churned out that Foxboro Hot Tubs nonsense, and that could be a strong sign that Idiot was a fluke and they don’t have another album like that in them. Which sucks for me and all the other Green Day fans, but, it does mean that all is not lost for The Offspring.

Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace is a step forward for them. Not a leap, but a firm and steady step. If they can build on that momentum, their next record might surpass Green Day’s and possibly gain them not only cultural cachet but true relevance again. I know this concept is a little arcane for some of you, but if you can, either buy the CD to this album or at least download the album art. The inside gatefold is a beautiful drawing of an angel over a torpid red sky. Wings outstretched and arrows piercing her heart, she’s held in chains to two groups of faceless silhouettes on the ground, locked in a tug of war but, seemingly, holding them off. That image, one of the best pieces of album art I’ve seen in so long that I forgot what album art was, is an allegory for The Offspring right now. The twin forces of age and the shifting tide of preference have them chained to the ground right now, but the fight has not been taken out of them. They haven’t truly taken flight quite yet, but The Offspring are on the rise again.

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