It seems absurd to complain that a punk rock album is callow. After all, isn’t much of punk’s appeal centered on flaunting juvenile impulses, wallowing in dysfunction, and proudly celebrating deviance and alienation while giving the middle finger to the straight world?
Well, yes and no. Sure, the Ramones — the band that started it all — sang about substance abuse, disaffection, and mental illness; the Sex Pistols’ subject matter ran the gamut from anarchy and boredom to pure bile; the Dead Boys purveyed a particularly virulent strain of petulant misanthropy that easily spilled over into misogyny. And yet ”callow” is not a word I would use to describe any of those pioneering ’70s acts, partly because, for all their pitch-black humor and seeming negativity, they genuinely seemed to have suffered for their art — as all great artists must.
Callow is, however, a word I would apply to any number of latter-day punk bands. Take, for instance, Sum 41, the speedy young Canadians who struck platinum with their major-label debut, last year’s ”All Killer, No Filler,” and who have just released the follow-up, Does This Look Infected? Now, it’s hardly their fault that they were all born after the great punk revolution of ’77. These boys — singer/guitarist Deryck ”Bizzy D” Whibley, guitarist Dave ”Brownsound” Baksh, bassist Jay ”Cone” McCaslin, and drummer Steve ”Stevo32” Jocz, who are all 21 or 22 — came to maturity in the post-Green Day age, a time when the music that once seemed so radical had devolved into just another genre flavor, a commercially viable entertainment option for young music consumers. Hey, it’s got a fast beat, and you can mosh to it — what more do you want?
In truth, Sum 41 more than hold their own against the current competition. In fact, you could even say they offer a bit more variety than, say, blink-182 or Good Charlotte. There’s an underlying metallic vibe here (they said they wanted to make a harder album than the last one, and they’ve succeeded), with lots of meaty riffs and galloping tempos, touches of hardcore, and even a bit of rapping (on ”Thanks for Nothing”). On ”Hooch,” they even show their sensitive side with a quietly pretty, meditative coda.
The production — by the band’s manager, Greig Nori — is state-of-the-art: loud, sharp, and pummeling. Turn the volume way up, and it sounds killer. The lyrics range from earnestly tormented (”So am I/Still waiting/For this world/To stop hating?/Can’t find a/Good reason/Can’t find hope to believe in,” from ”Still Waiting”) to joyously profane (”You look like s—/You smell like s—/So why you such a d—,” from ”A.N.I.C.”).
Yet what’s missing is a sense of danger, a whiff of real risk, elements that have always been crucial to great rock. Indeed, Whibley sings passionately about ”living like the dead” on ”All Messed Up,” yet his putative anguish carries no real weight. Partly that’s because the song itself is such a ragingly catchy pop-punk number that Whibley could be singing the Yellow Pages, for all it matters. The tune conjures pictures of a horde of smiling 15-year-olds jumping frenziedly up and down, not caring if they spill their Cokes on their new Doc Martens. It’s happy-face punk, regardless of what sentiments are being sung.
Somehow, I doubt that this is what those monoliths of rage, the Sex Pistols, had in mind (although the ever-prescient Clash got it right when they sang about bandwagon jumpers who ”think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money,” on 1979’s ”White Man in Hammersmith Palais”). Of course, it’s a measure of just how much punk has mutated that Sum 41’s music feels absolutely antiseptic — aside from the occasional blue language, it’s hard to imagine a parent finding much to object to here. Where ’70s (and some ’80s and ’90s) punk attracted a disparate array of supporters, from intellectuals to professional malcontents, Sum 41’s output seems tailor-made for pimply adolescents, and angst isn’t a requirement for membership in their fan club.
Still, it’s churlish to begrudge the younguns their fun. It’s a new world, and new rules apply for ambitious young punk rock bands. The best we old curmudgeons can do is hope that ”Infected” might actually infect some listeners with an urge to explore the wealth of great archival punk music. A coworker recently borrowed ”Please Kill Me,” Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s book on the history of punk, for her guitar-playing 15-year-old daughter, who, after falling for blink-182, was inspired to go back and investigate the Ramones and other first-generation CBGB-era bands. Hey, maybe the kids are alright after all.