“AFI’s Sing the Sorrow Still Stands as the Last Great Statement in American Punk Rock”

In 2003 I was in college and all of a sudden lot of people started talking about this AFI band. I envisioned them as kind of a snotty entity deliberately designed to pi** people off or make them uncomfortable, like their fellow Cali brethren NOFX and No Use for a Name. 

I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I got hold of the CD through my friend (these were the days of epidemic CD-burning, like our own secret, small-scale little musical vigilante insurrection) and the songs not only rocked but conjealed, with the catchiness of Green Day but with an undeniably harder, darker edge to them. To this day, I feel like AFI singer Davey Havok gets nowhere near enough credit for being a bona fide punk visionary. Actually, until today, I had no idea if he were a guy or a girl, which shows you how low of a profile he’s managed to keep. 

In fitting with this band being ever-underrated and neglected, they’re still making albums to this day, releasing them to what seems like pretty much no attention or press whatsoever, let alone acclaim or adoration. In 2003, however, things were a little different: it seemed the stars were aligning for a key breakthrough. The band, on the strength of their 2000 record The Art of Drowning, had been signed to a major, David Geffen’s DreamWorks. In an act of what could be described as serendipity or just plain chaos, then, DreamWorks would get sold to Universal later that very year. Anyway, this portrays the prescious, fleeting window that AFI had to go in and make a punk rock record on a major label studio budget, but with, more or less, the artistic freedom of an indie. 

And indeed, Sing the Sorrow just breathes with the sort of hard, street authenticity smacking of genuine artists who aren’t in it for a radio hit and aren’t initiating operatives to try to score a radio hit. Although pretty much every song on Sing the Sorrow has a verse and chorus, and is catchy, all of the hooks are lined with genuine human melancholy, it seems, or “sorrow,” as would be appropriate given the operation. Almost best of all, Davey Havok has a way of never hammering you over the head with his messages — everything remains metaphorical (“And throw them all to dust”; “While I waited / I was wasting away”; “Onto the melting board / And melt away”). The album is packed to the gills with dark, foreboding and even apocalyptic images, but they’re never overly earnest, rather cloaking themselves in enough Dionysian ambiguity to come across as entertaining and cinematic. They’re more TV show or movie than journal entry, in other words, and this is a good thing, in terms of the album’s eternal playability. 

And sure enough, the last time I listened to this sucker, which was the other night, in the throes of what’s the snowiest November in northern Indiana since 1966, I enjoyed it more than I ever have. It sank in to me, finally, how just ALL of these songs are classic, and even that maniacal hardcore track “Death of Seasons” seemed to fit in, as not only an ode to the band’s abrasive roots but also a legitimate stylistic foil to all of the catchiness transpiring. I still hold “Silver and Cold”; “The Great Disappointment” and “This Celluloid Dream” as the strongest tracks on the album, in all likelihood, but on last listen, I marveled before the crisp synergy of “Bleed Black” and “Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings),” and of course the unscrupulous mournfulness of “The Leaving Song.” “The Leaving Song” is essentially a ballad performed on vocals and electric guitar, a nice frugal move of maintaining certain elements of the former instrumentation and just removing the excessive noise. 

In a way, though, the energy on it is way different from a ballad, which typically contains some sort of resolution or pearl of hope, somewhere within. “The Leaving Song,” stylistically, could be compared to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” for being a conspicuously soft number by what’s typically a raucous, unruly group. In my opinion, though, it at least in part summons the death knell of punk rock as a whole — everything was soon to be neutralized, at least in America, with DreamWorks being sold to Universal and punk in America being funneled toward the “goofy” realm of “Stacey’s Mom” and general, whiny preteens (or folks who sound like preteens), of which I don’t think any of us need any more. 

What makes AFI better than, say, Fall out Boy, who at this point are pretty much a Weezer-like puppet of the music industry, programmed drums and all? Well, aside from the fact that the chord progression to “Sugar, We’re Goin down” is pretty much awful and the guy keeps making gratuitous, crowd-pleasing references to a love interest, there’s just more emotion, more effusion going on with Davey Havok. He’s not afraid the scream at the top of his lungs to get his point across and as a result, the projects come across more dynamic, darker and more meaningful, and less as a case of pandering to corporate radio. In a way, with the stark lack of ubiquitous appearances of Sing the Sorrow and its tunes, AFI still stands as a worthy bastion of the underground, with songs that always packed a little bit of spicy disturbance and disruptive energy, to complement their sugary hooks and adrenaline-fueled charisma. 


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