Despite Topical Punk Protest, Bad Religion's 'North' Feels Strained
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 22:01
In three decades time, the avant-garde becomes the norm—thus is the challenge of punk band Bad Religion’s 16th album, True North. How does a band that has spent the last 34 years writing a formula stay relevant in a genre dependent on their breaking? True North in principle is a redirecting of the listener’s moral compass, and its careful lacing of humanist philosophy with classic skepticism does so with a discipline few punk groups achieve. But while the message is eloquent and succinct, the messengers seem exhausted, and there comes the definite irony of a finely tuned punk band.
In an era of doughnut songwriting, True North favors the box of munchkins. To frontman Greg Graffin and lead guitarist Brett Gurewitz, too often the heart of a song is missing from the doughy crust. True North cuts to the core, with only one of its 16 songs breaking the 3-minute mark. Some songs in their entirety sound like a chorus. Others sound like a verse.
The title track of the album, “True North,” is Graffin’s ode to the punk youth, the convergence of adolescent frustration and self-critique. There’s condescension in Greg’s whine (“The world’s not my responsibility.”), a fateful billing of the punk culture. There’s a strange profundity in a middle-aged man rekindling the uncertainty of his youth—it’s an eery implication that a lost teenager is never found, but rather further loses himself with age (“The mapmaker’s legend has direction and a key / He set the declination, but what good is it to me?”). True North is the wistful story of a generation that never kept its promises.
Back-to-back tracks “Robin Hood in Reverse” and “Land of Endless Greed” are wittily answered by the song “F—k You.” The titles quite plainly outline the band’s view of Wall Street, with the tracks serving as an upshot of the Occupy movement (“But out here in the lap of luxury / Unlimited guarantee for your insatiable need / In the land of endless greed”). Subtlety certainly is no part of the album’s charm, but there’s something commendable about a band willing to open a can of beans and spill it out onto the counter.
There’s no shorting Bad Religion of their “oozin’ aahs,” but otherwise, the production is minimalistic on True North. Harmonically, Bad Religion is in top form. Their sound echoes contemporaries such as The Germs, while leeching deep down into their punk roots, channeling The Ramones and The Clash. However, True North’s chomping rifts and anthemic tone also seemingly evoke the sound of younger rockers like Green Day and Reel Big Fish, and ventures rather brazenly with the ska sound. The result can be stodgy, even incestuous at times, but in a genre quite willing to cannibalize itself, this is expected, and more often than not, Bad Religion finds liberation from an exhausted sound through deft lyricism and superior musical chops.
The album’s closing track “Changing Tides” is the pained admission of the band’s growing old. Punk culture detests the life of quiet desperation, while exploring the struggles of the alternatives. Graffin wryly chants “Clinging to the past has got you straining / Comes the recognition now you’re on a mission that is born to fail.” At base, it’s the crisis of the aging artist, but the heart of True North is far more disturbing, suggesting perhaps there is no true north and the world has no direction. However, the philosophy of Bad Religion is far from disparaging, but rather a hopeful, nonpartisan, but certainly political charged tenet of environmentalism and humanism. It’s anything but juvenile. Punk never outgrew Bad Religion. Rather, Bad Religion has outgrown punk through the scope of its message. It’s time for a new box of doughnuts.