The excitement of We Are the Champions of the Word (Retrospectus) is supposed to be the five new songs at the end of the 29-song collection. It probably is, but given how bands often release a Best Of before they breakup, this record feels more worrisome than celebratory. That’s just a personal feeling that views this as some kind of omen. Really, We Are the Champions is probably out now because the band has careers, kids and other things taking their time instead of writing new material. It’s been four years already since Metropole, daggum.
So how is this “not a greatest hits” album, as the band so astutely puts it? Well, 75 minutes of any band is a lot. Add that it has 19 years’ worth of material, including a fair shake from The Lawrence Arms’ early years where they hadn’t quite solidified their sound, and it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. As a whole it’s a solid release, but I’m a punk rock child and my attention span has trouble with something this long. I think the band knew that would be an issue, putting old stuff in the middle and, essentially, arranging it like a double album.
The liner notes here are the star of the show. Written by Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly, it fits their unique voices, providing insight into the songs in a quick read mini-personal essay format. It’s comprehensive but abbreviated. And full of witticisms.
The arrangement is interesting in that it’s not chronological. They’ve mixed the record so it doesn’t sound scattershot (for production between different albums) and it moves throughout the catalog rather seamlessly. We Are the Champions doesn’t evolve in a timeline like the band did. Instead it shows the different steps by jumping back and forth. The songwriting changes are on display as it goes from newish song to old, but it’s never jarring.
“The Rabbit and the Rooster” is from a comp or something—I can’t find where, but I know this came out regardless of what the liner notes say. A quick Google search has it on YouTube circa 2010. It’s the most fully-formed of the B-sides and if all 5 were like this, it would be more notable. Instead, there’s another version of “Warped Tour Extravaganza,” the McCaughan-fronted “Black Snow,” and two more promising but incomplete songs in “Laugh Out Loud” and “Catalog.” They’re songs for the collectors, unlikely to show up in a set list later. With most punk bands, “incomplete” isn’t much of a difference, but The Lawrence Arms’ songs are so honed-in on their proper releases that there’s a sizable digression here. “Catalog” is probably my standout of the truly new cuts, a fast-take rager in the Oh Calcutta! vein with a bit of a harder edge to it.
It’s tricky to rate this. It has many of my favorite songs but I feel like a collection has to really do something new to earn its points and the asterisk tracks, for the most part, feel like they deserve that asterisk.
Overall this does hit on The Lawrence Arms’ evolution and best songs, but the new songs don’t bring much new to the table, and the album is a bit too long to use this as a primer for newbies. We Are the Champions is a solid record but I’d still point prospective fans toward individual records. The appeal will be mostly for the band’s already existing fans. In the iTunes era, I have to wonder if a 29-song cd is the best format for this, as compared to a 5-song EP with special packaging or something along those lines, maybe upping the game from their 10th anniversary 7” Buttsweat and Tears.