I only knew of The Lawrence Arms as a symbol before I knew they were a band.
In high school, a lot of the punks I knew wore Lawrence Arms t-shirts – the iconic, classic “King” design. Yellow on a black shirt. I didn’t know what they were, but I liked that shirt. I wasn’t a punk. I liked punk, but since I’m from a middle-class far northwest suburb of Chicago, I didn’t have much to rebel against. I was comfortable. I spent most of my free time at the local Steak ‘n Shake, in front my computer or not taking my part-time job at a big box retailer seriously.
I was more bored than angry. My musical tastes were pretty run-of-the-mill for a sixteen-year-old in the early ’00s – I could talk your ear off about Incubus or Weezer or a lost Nirvana B-side. I remember learning that The Lawrence Arms were actually a band, and that one of their vocalists/bass player had the same name as I do. I also remember my friends getting really excited about The Greatest Story Ever Told being released in 2003, but I never got around to listening to it.
It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2005, right before the beginning of my sophomore year of college, that I finally saw The Lawrence Arms play a show at The House Cafe in DeKalb, Illinois. It was kind of perfect – a coffee house doubling as sweaty punk venue. There, I finally got it. They were fast, funny and ferocious. I couldn’t believe I had wasted all that valuable time. Luckily, with the release of Oh! Calcutta! in March 2006, I’d have time to catch up.
But for The Lawrence Arms, catching up would represent something different. While Oh! Calcutta! represents the pinnacle of their sound to that point – duet-style vocals between guitarist Chris McCaughan and bassist Brendan Kelly, as well as slapdash songs that rarely threaten eclipsing the three-minute mark, it would also contain an immediacy that they wouldn’t find again. After the release of Calcutta, The Lawrence Arms wouldn’t make another album for eight years. It’s the sound of three punk lifers — drummer Neil Hennessy, included — facing down 30. By the time they’d re-emerge with 2014’s Metropole, they’d have another decade of life under their belts, singing that “dying young just didn’t work, so I guess I’m dying old.”
“The Devil’s Taking Names” is an all-time great album opener, with Kelly and McCaughan starting the song together before they each take turns with a verse. It moves at a breakneck pace — and their dynamic works great here — and before it has a chance to register, it’s over…two minutes later. By then, Kelly’s already launching into the next song, “Cut It Up,” revealing what sounds like a realization that change is on the horizon:
When the ship done sinks and the crew done drowns
Where am I gonna do all my hanging around?
This cruise is ending, please hold onto your stub
Thank you for coming, and thanks for the love
Songs like “Great Lakes/Great Escapes” sound like the band is coming to terms with the excitement of youth slowing down:
I used to paint myself with sentiment
But all my colors always turn to gray
What used to be fun just isn’t anymore, or so they think, as McCaughan declares:
We can live with our mistakes
All my friends are going out tonight
And I can’t sit here just waiting for another day to die
The Kelly joins back in harmony, singing:
Fuck all this ancient history
There are so many memorable moments on Oh! Calcutta! – the sinewy leads on “Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God” and the slow burn realization “Jumping the Shark,” with the drop-dead lines:
Fake memories, they don’t impress me
The old times were never that great
There’s the palpable anxiety of “Key to the City,” a three-minute fuck-it-all rager. This album is full of great moments, but the theme remains the same: the party’s over.
As a 31-year-old who debates whether to wear the band shirt or the button down to work in the morning, I feel that sentiment. I can’t go to a show every night of the week. I can’t stay up all night. I need to remember to stay hydrated. Responsibility can be a bitch, but with it, there’s reward. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it. That’s what Oh! Calcutta! represents to me.
It’s a love letter to the punk scene they were aging out of. It’s their fastest, most unrelenting album, but to that point, it’s their deepest. It’s a called shot. They’d take a break after the touring cycle, working on a variety of side projects, briefly re-emerging for a stopgap EP in 2009, and the occasional one-off show. For a while, the album’s closing track, “Like a Record Player” seemed to say it all:
The time to say goodbye passed us long ago
And I would say we’ve overstayed our welcome,
But you know I don’t think we’re ever going home
When they re-emerged with Metropole, they were a little more deliberate, a little wiser, and keenly aware of approaching middle age. Even so, they’re now husbands and dads who can cast off an excellent dick joke on Twitter or still find the reward in getting wrecked on a weeknight.
The ramblin’ boys of pleasure grew into men with the black in their beards that turned to white. We’re lucky to have them.
The Lawrence Arms will play Oh! Calcutta! in its entirety at Riot Fest in Chicago on Saturday, September 16.