It was the height of the summer of 2010 – the year in which I was about to embark on an awkward and misshapen venture into the murky world of South African high school social circles. Social circles that are largely similar to those that dominate clichéd American high school films, but we don’t get convenient clothing guides to determine with whom to be friends. Puberty hit early for me but only bought about a perpetual bout of acne that turned my face into a scale model of the effect of tectonic uplift. South Africa was awash with football fever as we had scored the economically-crippling privilege of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup and even the least sports-crazy people became experts in rules surrounding what was described as a “gentleman’s game for hooligans”.
I, on the other hand, was losing myself in the nihilistic angst and narcissistic vitriol of Sum 41. While everyone was discussing the intricacies of offside, I had stumbled across a band that would later come to define much of my high school career. I actually came upon Sum 41 by sheer accident while searching for Billy Talent on Limewire which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Limewire as its search engine was truly terrible. It landed me straight in the middle of Chuck and exposed me to Deryck “Bizzy D” Whibley’s fractured mind as he leapt from sardonic political commentary backed by explosive guitar riffs to angst-ridden tongue-lashings of his, at the time, still-in-progress divorce from Avril Lavinge. It was an album that spoke to me on so many levels. It was at a time in which I was becoming moderately political aware and was starting to notice the injustices and issues in the worlds, and Sum 41 managed to bring those to the forefront of my mind with politically conscious songs like “We’re All To Blame” and “88”. On the other hand, the start of high school also featured a brief venture into the infatuated world of romantic relationships. A venture that was doomed to fail from the start and one that found its solace in the likes of “Pieces” and “Slipping Away”.
It is now six years down the line and over a decade since the band released Chuck. The world hasn’t improved, we are currently in one of the worst years ever, high school is long gone, my romantic forays have developed into a healthy relationship of close to a year and a half, my love for Sum 41 hasn’t diminished even the slightest, and the band has just released 13 Voices – their first album in five years. The announcement of the release of 13 Voices via Hopeless Records sent a jolt of excitement down my spine for three reasons. Firstly, Hopeless Records is known for never pigeon-holing their artists. Secondly, the release of 13 Voices would see Dave Baksh returning to the band. Thirdly, it meant that a genre-defining band would be returning to the forefront of a genre that has been milling around the same stagnant pond for several years.
Such anticipation can often only lead to disappointment as has been the case for many album releases this year, but each single released off 13 Voices served to stoke the fires of excitement as the album seemed as the band copied their single release pattern from Chuck. Some part of me immediately hoped that 13 Voices would be Chuck 2.0 simply due to this pattern of following up a fast-paced song with a slower, more emotional song. It was a glorious hope as Chuck was without a doubt Sum 41’s best album from a purely musical and lyrical point of view and it would be a difficult task to live up to that reputation. Nothing released after Chuck could ever come close to ferocity and emotional depth of the album, so it was with much hesitation that I downloaded my copy of 13 Voices and began playing the first song.
I immediately felt like I was back in high school as a drawn-out intro lead me into the opening song. It was a flashback to the delicate guitar work that opened Chuck, but instead of guitar chords “A Murder of Crows (You’re All Dead To Me” features ominous violin before launching into fist-pumping politically conscious melodic punk rock as Whibley snarls about being sick of hypocrites. The album is built in a very similar fashion to Chuck in the sense that Sum 41 relentlessly delivers melodic punk anthem with reckless abandon and only occasionally pause to deliver emotionally charged ballads.
However, 13 Voices is anything but a mere Chuck rehash. Chuck was riddled with insecurity, nihilism, narcissism and hoity-toity political consciousness. 13 Voices is a strong, confident album that does not need to rely on slick jibes at politician, collective disparity and highbrow metaphorical lyrics to drive home its points about politics and darker themes connected to mental health and addiction. 13 Voices uses simple and blunt lyrics backed by snarling guitar riffs and impossible-to-predict percussion to rip apart the flimsy state of the music industry (“God Save Us All)”, blast society’s dependence on technology (“Fake My Own Death”), and comment on the role of media in corrupting the youth (“There Will Be Blood”). The darker themes are tackled through slower and gentler ballads that push home themes of overcoming addiction and becoming a stronger person (“War” and “Breaking The Chain”).
Chuck is the album for 13-year-old me. It was erratic and insecure in where it stood. It’s angst and vitriol was its dominant features that overshadowed some of the less noticeable and more mature qualities like its delicate handling of relationships and the painful struggles of addiction. 13 Voices, on the other hand, is the album for 20-year-old me – a more mature person but one still capable of immaturity and in need of music that can be serious in its thematic concerns while backing those concerns with a ferocious musical accompaniment.