Despite its conflagratory title, The Walls Ablaze isn't the torturous soul-cry written in the immediate aftermath of break-up or disappointment or insult, it's the music that comes two weeks, a month, forever after: an appraisal of what happened and what's left. On "The Old Way," a rational declaration about the past, "the questions you can ask are the devils you must face," is followed immediately by the baleful, succinct confession, "and every single day, I still think of you in the old ways." The narrator's longing is tempered by distance and acceptance, but it's no less palpable for its maturity.
Ultimately, however, longing, as well as blame and regret, resolves into a dialogue, as in the "The Scales," where "you left it all behind: all the things you've earned and all the things that came from time" is answered by the rousing chorus "you know I couldn't help it." A dumped lover calling out to an absent ex? A superego chastising an id? Hard to say. Many songs here are sung to a "you," but that "you" is a revolving cast of beloveds, cultural signifiers, and selves, none of whom are spared Dougher's perceptive laser, and none of whom are allowed to wallow in the histrionics that attend the standard lexicon of pop finger-pointing.
When Dougher's chesty, brass-colored alto voice rises over lurching piano and twangy guitar to a restrained falsetto on "What She'd Trade" and announces that "the selfish life of the activist can only be understood by the selfishness of the artist," it might not be clear who she's singing to--could it be that artist and activist are one?--but there's no mistaking that who she's singing about is us, as we navigate the end of punk rock's eternal, emotional adolescence.