The legendary LA punks unleash what could be their final album. Is it a worthy epitaph?
Bad Religion have nothing left to prove in 2013. They come to True North, their sixteenth studio album, having refined their style to the nth degree. They’ve influenced countless bands over the last 33 years, maintained their ferocity, and set a new record for punk consistency. Some will tell you that the infamous prog-rock experiment Into the Unknown (1983) as well as their mid-90s stint on Atlantic Records saw a decline in their work, but just as many others will insist that they’ve never made a bad album. I’m in the latter camp, and True North makes it sixteen for sixteen. In most respects, they have harnessed a sound that refuses to date.
My fanboy credentials noted, few critics are able to dispel the writing talents of singer Greg Graffin and guitarist/Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz. They reclaimed their creative partnership on 2002’s sublime The Process of Belief, and have steadily worked to better themselves on each consecutive release. The Empire Strikes First (2004) was a biting socio-political think-piece, New Maps of Hell (2007) took them back to the sledgehammer fury of their early work, and The Dissent of Man (2010) was a more melodic affair akin to 1993’s Recipe for Hate. For what could very well be their last record, the band have tipped their hats to BR’s considerable discography and produced True North, a veritable “best of” in a way that aims to achieve the double-speed nirvana of their two masterpieces, No Control (1989) and Against the Grain (1990). If lightning-fast guitar licks and socially-charged lyrics are what you want, then this is the album for you.
The title track kicks off the sixteen song compendium with a typically epic intro by guitarists Brian Baker and Greg Hetson. Then Graffin’s vocals remind you why BR have stuck around for so long; they may play as loud and as fast as possible, but the lyrics all come from the heart and manage to make you ponder their meaning. “True North,” like most of their catalogue, is just as captivating in text without the backing, contemplating one’s internal search for… well, whatever you’re searching for. When you have a punk frontman with a PhD, you end up with weighty refrains like these:
“Overburdened, underwhelmed, their ethical decree
That’s your moral compass but what good is it to me?”
“Past is Dead” tempers the momentum somewhat before blasting into guitar solo overload, providing some of the finest shredding of the lot. It’s a typical BR track but no less pumping, intoning that the past is indeed dead and that we “should focus on tomorrow instead.” Track three, “Robin Hood in Reverse,” feels like an obvious single and I’m surprised it wasn’t chosen. One of the more melodic numbers on the record, it features creative wordplay and even a Sham 69 reference. It’s all topped off with some great guitar work from Hetson and Baker, as well as bassist Jay Bentley.
Going back to pure speed, “Land of Endless Greed” gets my vote as the best archetypal Bad Religion track on the disc, as it is sheer, unadulterated anger blasted out in the most tuneful of ways. If Gurewitz is to be believed (and he produced the album with QOTSA’s Joe Barresi), then this is two beats per minute faster than No Control. If you’ve heard any of the tracks from that classic, then you know how fast that is. It’s so relentless that you almost feel sorry for drummer Brooks Wackerman. “Greed” takes some hearty swipes at the government in a tight two-minute belter – the perfect punk track. Really, if you heard this and didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t think BR were a bunch of middle-aged men.
“Fuck You,” the first non-radio-friendly single, might be a little juvenile by this group’s standards, but it still hits the mark as a fist-raising barn-burner. After writing so many songs with a varied vocabulary, it was only a matter of time before Graffin pondered the effects of a well-aimed expletive, and it provides some highly memorable lyrics:
“Everybody needs a slogan in their pocket or two
It never hurts to have a strategy you can go to
Sometimes I have no sense at all
As most flawed men are won’t to do
Just say fuck you
A menace too
Pay homage to
Your bad attitude.”
As if to prove that they’re not just about aggression, the next two tracks mark a departure in sound. The old adage that “every Bad Religion track sounds the sounds the same” has never been accurate, but “Dharma and the Bomb” is a middle-finger to that ideology. By all accounts a pop-punk ditty, it also marks a first for the group: Gurewitz assumes the main vocal duties whilst Graffin lends harmonic support. This is pure bubblegum confection and I love it; my only complaint is that it doesn’t last long enough.
“Hello Cruel World” is even better. At 3:50, it is easily the longest-running song on the record and another musical departure. The slow backing and Graffin’s positively haunting vocal work mark it out as the “Infected” of True North. The lyrics also cover more personal concerns than political strife:
“I can feel so alone with you right here
And yet I turn to you for comfort in my despair
You are dust and I am bone
And I will love your endless gaze of madness until I turn to stone.”
For sheer lyrical elegance, it might be my favourite track.
“Vanity” (a reference to No Control‘s “Sanity”) kicks it up a notch once again and runs a grand total of 1:01. The real mix of extremes here is what gives True North an edge, which is maintained with the fantastic “In Their Hearts is Right,” which I can’t wait to hear live. The repeated refrain, “Everybody knows what’s in their heart is right” is delivered with uplifting power and makes for an instant gig favourite.
Other highlights include wail of ennui “Dept. Of False Hope,” the religious commentary of “Popular Consensus,” and the pain of living modern life in “The Island.” The latter would have felt right at home on 1988’s ground-breaking Suffer. The final track, “Changing Tide,” seems like a farewell to the fans who have stood by the band for over three decades:
“Brothers say goodbye
Sisters don’t you cry
All embrace the times
Wade into the changing tide.”
All in all, True North is exactly what you expect from Bad Religion but its yet another hit in their collection that takes short, barbed songs and bleeds every last ounce of energy from them. No other long-running punk act has managed to stay this consistent, and if they call it quits on recording here, then they will end their discography on an indisputable high. But don’t just take my word for it: True North debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200, the band’s highest ranking in 33 years and a definite victory for a hardcore band. Punk, my friends, isn’t dead… but if these guys hang up their guitars, then they just might take what’s left of the genre with them…
- Dave James