Just in Time for Ska's Fourth Wave, We Are the Union Deliver Their Best Album with 'Ordinary Life'
Published Jun 01, 2021If ska needed a revival, no one told We Are the Union. While there's been plenty of chatter about a new wave of ska, these L.A. punks have been going strong for most of the last 15 years, persisting through the genre's dark age. Now, that dedication looks poised to pay off in a big way with their fifth — and best — album.
Ordinary Life is a fun-sounding yet intensely sincere record that's filled with heart and purpose. Not long before the album's release, singer Reade Wolcott came out as a trans woman, and her struggles with gender dysphoria and self-discovery are a propulsive force behind this music. With a potent mix of mid-'90s ska-punk and early-2000s pop-punk, We Are the Union have delivered 11 sharply written and highly gratifying songs about being who you are.
We Are the Union's sound hasn't changed much — aside from especially punchy, polished work here from producer Jon Graber (NOFX, Goldfinger) — but their outlook is noticeably different. The band's previous albums often came off as cynical and jaded, even by Wolcott's own admission; she seemed to be shouting out in hopes for a better world despite feeling helpless to do anything about it. In contrast, Ordinary Life feels boldly empowered. The album still deals with discord at both the personal and societal levels, but Wolcott is taking them on while in forward motion rather than at a standstill. The result is a record that better matches the positive energy of the music.
"If I get one life, I'm gonna do what I want," Wolcott sings, laying out one of Ordinary Life's main themes throughout "Morbid Obsessions," an energetic and deliciously joyous song that ought to be immediately retconned into Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. "Boys Will Be Girls" is a trans anthem that rejects gender norms in a way that's equally confrontational and celebratory. Elsewhere, "Pasadena" is a punchy skate-punk song about taking things day by day, "Make It Easy" is a surf-rocky tune that swoons with youthful romance, "Short Circuit" is an American Pie-style party-starter about the sinking feeling of guilt, and "Big River" is a rousing reggae bop about finding your identity. This record takes the soul-crushing sentiments of gender dysphoria, heartbreak and mental health and turns them into a feel-good summer album that feels well-earned. And all the while, those horns keep blaring with joyful defiance.
At a time when ska is being critically reassessed and early-aughts pop-punk is making its own unlikely comeback — whether it's via Olivia Rodrigo, Machine Gun Kelly or Willow Smith — this album even sounds more contemporary than you might expect. While you can draw musical parallels to ska-punk classics like Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish or pop-punk vintages like American Hi-Fi and Treble Charger, We Are the Union are fortunately aging less like Blink-182 and more like Jeff Rosenstock. (another artist who is embracing ska at the moment). The melodies are sharp, the band is tight, the lyrics are purposeful and the songs are fun yet uncorny. Ordinary Life is not only an upbeat, lively and catchy rock record, but a late coming-of-age moment for a well-established band who have just found their defining statement: "We are everything but ordinary." (Bad Time)