You can always count on Chicago Political punks Rise Against to offer timely commentary. Their last album, 2017’s Wolves, came out six months into Trump’s term, with songs such as “House on Fire” and “Mourning in Amerika” gifting us some much-needed perspective. What the band has always done, from their 2001 debut The Unravelling, is spell out the problems we face and then give hope. That’s what they’ve done yet again with the new album Nowhere Generation.
“I think of Rise Against as a thing that will take you to a dark place, ask you to join us in this dark place, but we’re never gonna leave you there,” says frontman Tim McIlrath. “We won’t abandon you in the dark place. We’re gonna leave some breadcrumbs for you to get out. We’ll come back into the sunshine, and that’s when we’ll start talking and thinking about how we change things so we don’t end up living in that dark place.”
“Darkness exists, and that despair will exist on a Rise Against record, but I feel like our songs should be like the arc of any good story,” he continues. “It should lead you to a place with a silver lining, lead you to a place where it’s not completely void of all hope. That’s part of the responsibility I feel as a songwriter but also how I feel as a person.”
McIlrath describes himself as an optimist, something which might surprise those familiar with his lyrics that deal with dystopian futures, and wretched political situations. Even the title of the new album appears nihilistic. There’s more to it than that.
“Nowhere Generation is speaking to a generation of people who feel a little bit invisible, and lost in the years of society,” McIlrath says. “People who feel like they’re running a race but the finish line just keeps moving on them. It’s giving an ear to those voices, and trying to listen instead of dismissing the complaints of people who are trying to get ahead and swim upstream the whole time. I feel like this is a lot of what our fans were communicating to me, and not just here in America but all over the world. I realized that we have been living in a very tumultuous political climate for the last four years.”
For an American political punk band like Rise Against, the last four years have offered plenty of lyrical inspiration, low-hanging fruit, and easy targets. But McIlrath wanted to tackle the disease, rather than the symptoms. The bulk of the work for the new album was done in 2019 and it was intended for a pre-election release. The pandemic knocked those plans to the ground.
“It led to me way overthinking everything,” the frontman says. “I think I had a picture in my head of what this record would be, and when it would come out. When I realized it wasn’t coming out before the election, it was going to be a post-election record, I thought ‘wait, is that going to be a bad idea? Should we get this thing out?’ When that came and went, I realized that ‘no, we’re singing about things that are a little more timeless than just an election, a president or an administration. This record still very much makes sense.’
“But then I went through the same thing with the pandemic and the lockdown, the rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots around the world. I thought the same thing: so much has changed in the world, is this record even still relevant to what’s happening? Again, overthinking got the better of me because the more I listened to the songs, I was like, we were talking about issues that were bubbling just beneath the surface anyway.”
The latest single, and the opening track on the album, is “The Numbers.” The song works as a reminder that people are a vehicle for change. Power comes from below.
“People really decide what happens,” he says. “Our leaders can be compelled to make changes if enough of us demand those changes. You certainly don’t need a Rise Against song to tell you that. We have a rich history of social movements that all started with one person or a group of people raising their hand saying, ‘I’m sick of this and want it to change.’ 100 years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote in this country. That was something that people fought for. So ‘The Numbers’ is just a reminder of that.”
It’s a truth that McIlrath takes seriously, amplified by the fact that he’s the father of two teenage girls. As he’s forced to think hard about the day that they leave home, he also wonders what sort of world he’s sending them out into.
“It’s a lot more of a real thing now that my kids are a little older,” he says. “I want them to have the experiences that I had if they were good experiences. I want them to avoid bad experiences. The world seems a little bit like uncharted territory and so all those things were weighing on me when I was writing songs like ‘Nowhere Generation’ and an awful lot of the stuff that pops up on this record.”
But still, McIlrath is feeling hopeful. The band just announced a tour that starts at the end of July and, while he’s yet to figure out what those shows will look like, he’s happy that there is a light at the end of this damn tunnel.
“The world looked totally different just six weeks ago,” he says. “It could look totally different two months from now when we finally get on the road. But I’m feeling pretty good about it. It seems like things are trending in the right direction. Most people are taking the virus seriously, and people don’t want to go back into lockdown whether for health reasons or economic reasons. In our world we’re vaccinated against everything from tuberculosis to polio, and this is something else that we’ve figured out how to combat. All we need to do is figure out how to make sure everybody is on board. Then we can look at brighter future.”
Rise Up, Rise Above, RISE AGAINST: The Nowhere Generation album is available from June 4.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.