They’re a punk band who has shaken fences against theology and democracy, but Bad Religion have no need for clichés like the Return To Form. It’s an angle juicy enough for PR people and writers alike. Such a tactic makes for an easy reference point even high-school writers can handle, but Bad Religion has its own unmistakable logo for that.
There it is, smack dab on the front of the monolithic PR rundown for Bad Religion’s new album, The Dissent of Man, pushing the copy to the margins. This comparison may induce slight nausea, as its members have likely read Fast Food Nation, but the group’s iconic Crossbuster symbol is punk’s Golden Arches. You know the tired debate over consistency versus reinvention that happens when rock bands become rock brands? That was 10 years ago for Bad Religion.
So where does that leave The Dissent of Man, which enters the post-redemption world after welcoming original guitarist Brett Gurewitz back, hitting two stratospheric bullseyes (The Process of Belief and The Empire Strikes First) and then taking a breather with a competent holding pattern (New Maps of Hell)? There’s a restlessness here that recoils at the thought of more simple sloganeering, with Bad Religion flexing some disarming muscles. If you’re worried about a return to a particularly prog-punk form, relax, they still pretend Into the Unknown never happened. Three decades in (!), Bad Religion sound like nobody more than themselves, although the chug-chug guitar in “The Devil in Stitches” sounds an awful lot like it crawled out of Ric Ocasek’s gnarled hands. (More on Greg Loves the ‘70s later).
Dr. Graffin remains a wily wordsmith with better credentials than his layman peers (he’s teaching at friggin’ Cornell – talk about becoming the system). He sees science and punk as natural bedfellows: innovation by way of revolution. Self-appointed judges would remark he’s taken the pragmatism of formula to an extreme, crafting a song as a scientist would construct a research project.
Even at their scrappiest (check the boney debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?), Bad Religion could never be confused for genre zombies. Their music was always for pin-and-flaggers who snuck off to analyze their parents’ Beach Boys albums when the scene wasn’t looking. Few surviving peers are so dedicated to punk as song, and this commitment is smeared across Bad Religion’s permanent record, audible in the populist rage of The Empire Strikes First, the swinging gutter groove of Stranger Than Fiction and Recipe For Hate’s alt-nationalism.
While those bitter sugar harmonies haven’t disappeared, loaded gun Brett Gurewitz makes sure this is more than doo-wop dressed in leather. He might be Weezer’s new A&R guy, but Bad Religion still sound free from corporate dilution. In confessions like “Cyanide”, the band shines with a beefier take on alt-country’s scarred everyman outlook.
This strain of melodicism sounds like it came at a cost, with Graffin sounding more world-weary than ever, typical of the more intelligent punk disciples who still have hot bile to spew (see also: Bob Mould’s Life And Times, R.E.M.‘s Accelerate, and the last couple from the Fall). It’s a good look for someone as educated as Graffin to move on from Christianity’s fat ass of a target to personal affairs, even if he’s still singing lines like, “the halcyon fields of opportunity turn out to be consensual and arbitrary”. This is how you age with grace without losing your religion.
Recently, Bad Religion have been on a three-year release cycle. If that continues, The Dissent of Man will be their last album before the world supposedly ends in 2012. Although I’d put money on Graffin scoffing at that circle of apocalypto pamphlet-wavers, he’s making music like he too senses time is running out. A younger, angrier sibling to The Dissent of Man in eight months wouldn’t be unwelcome. With talking heads deafening the discourse, we need Bad Religion more than ever.
Still, escapism isn’t out of the question. If there are some now-people out there searching for pure pop, it’s hard to do better than “Someone to Believe”, which plays like a juiced Broadway number steamrolling over anything in American Idiot, in turn prompting the question: when are Bad Religion going to get their punk-with-purpose musical?
It would be a smash because this band has killed at making counterculture accessible before pop-punk became a swear word. Generation gaps may also close, however slowly. A couple head-scratching nods to classic rock spring up – Rush’s colossal “Working Man” riff gets sewn into “The Resist Stance”, and there’s some nasty “Foxy Lady” feedback announcing “Ad Hominem”. For the fan whose calendar marks 1977 as rock’s Year Zero, rabid furies like “Only Rain” and “Wrong Way Kids” hurl along like highway heathens who know they’ll live forever.
That optimism is The Dissent of Man‘s greatest thematic asset. Despite its title, and disregarding the fucking drag of living in 2010 America, the sun will still rise tomorrow. Something as mundane and taken for granted as a new day can be a return to form, even for those of us who are only rock stars in spirit.