Bad Religion’s fifth album Generator has always felt like their most apocalyptic album ... and that’s saying a lot for a band whose first album was called How Could Hell Be Any Worse?. But BR’s songwriters Greg Graffin and Bret Gurewitz never pulled their nightmare visions out of imagination alone or from religious texts (um ... of course not). To them, hell on earth was the inevitable result of power-hungry, selfish, greedy human beings. Generator is completely a product of its time, a response to the climate of the first Bush administration. Specifically, its raw punk anger is a gut-and-brain-level response to the Gulf War, the nuclear arms race, environmental destruction, overpopulation, and so on. In one of Generator‘s most caustic moments, “Chimaera”, they go so far as to cast humanity as an out-of-control monster, at the same time directing barbs at those who look to a supposed supreme being for the answer. In that way they implicitly call for humanity to fix itself, a mark of the call for action that lies behind every Bad Religion song, even the most pessimistic ones.
Generator is filled with hammering attacks on political and corporate havoc-wreakers, yet it also includes two of their most potent self-critiques of their own status as leaders or role models for their fans. “The Answer” spits at anyone who claims to know the definitive truth about anything (“Don’t tell me about the answer / ‘Cause then another one will come along soon”), while “No Direction” contains the often-quoted line, “I don’t believe in self-important folks who preach / No Bad Religion song can make your life complete”. That sentiment shouldn’t be taken as hypocrisy or self-deprecation. Instead, it represents an important piece of the Bad Religion puzzle—that they write social critique which doesn’t tell you what to think but encourages critical thinking about the world through their example. That might be counter-intuitive, especially about a band that holds nothing back, but it’s part of the key to what makes Bad Religion such a unique force in music, and in punk rock specifically.
Bad Religion’s approach to social protest could be seen as overly academic—what other band could weave a line like “and then you stratified accumulations” into a blazing rock song and make it sound natural—but that’d be a mistake, as not only is their inherent message a populist one, but their music is too. To ignore the lyrics on a Bad Religion album would be idiotic, but to ignore the pummeling, on-fire punk-rock attack of the music would be equally stupid. The sound of Generator is thick and rebellious, layered with loud guitars. But it’s also where the band takes a turn toward melody. To be fair, each of their albums before Generator found them becoming more melodic, letting more tunefulness find its way into the punk. But in Generator‘s melodies, you hear the roots of the even more melodic direction that they’d head afterwards. In certain moments this album feels like the perfect balance between crunch and hooks ... it’s a loud, overpowering album, but it also has melodies filled with yearning and melancholy. The prime example is the anti-war outcry “Heaven Is Falling”, which boasts a pop hook that, combined with the sentiment “And as the planes blacken the sky / It sounds like heaven is falling”, sends chills down your spine.
In a sense, this remastered version of Generator seems less necessary than any of the other early Bad Religion albums that have been reissued along with it (How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, Suffer, Against the Grain and No Control). Unlike several of the others, the sound of the original release wasn’t in all that bad of shape (though, to be fair, this remastered version does sound as crisp and loud as you’d want it to). Plus, the two bonus tracks here—rougher versions of two of the album tracks, from a split 7” with Noam Chomsky—are nice to hear but not essential. But while this music will be relevant forever, it feels especially so now, as the current president repeats the sins of his daddy and society as a whole deals with many of the same issues that Bad Religion was going on about over a decade ago. The youth of today might have turned their ears towards younger, trendier punk bands, but America needs Bad Religion like never before.
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