With what he intended as a joke, in 2011 Greg Graffin suggested the possibility of what to many is a terrible scenario: that his band Bad Religion might cease to be after the release of their 16th album True North. “We’re going to try one more album,” Graffin said at a show in Massachusetts, “and then all join the navy, do honest work.” Although in retrospect the comment seems clearly to have been a flippant one, the rumours and concerns on the part of fans were understandable. It isn’t just the status of the Los Angeles-based band are elder statesmen of punk that inspired concern — although they have been around since 1979 — but also that the recent march of history seems to indicate that Bad Religion’s aggressive intellectualism and righteous anger will be needed more than ever in the coming months and years.
Being themselves as sensitive to the social and political mood as ever, the now cemented latter-day lineup of Bad Religion have placed timely concerns about greed and irrationality at the centre of their lens once again, on an album which consciously leans back to the rapid-fire hardcore records they made in the late 1980s. Where 2010’s The Dissent of Man experimented with longer songs and slightly more mainstream rock textures, True North pares back once more to the short, sharp adrenaline shots that characterised 1988’s Suffer and its 1989 successor No Control. Although guitarist, co-lyricist and co-producer Brett Gurewitz (whose return for 2002’s The Process of Belief inaugurated the band’s current phase) recently hit fifty and the other band members aren’t far behind, True North is awash with evidence that their youthful fire is far from burned out.
If there’s a downside to the decision to focus on a lean, fast sound, it’s that it encourages Bad Religion’s longtime tendency towards a kind of creative inertia. Experimentation has never sat particularly well with the more hardcore side of punk, and True North accordingly makes very few alterations to a formula which has served the band well for many past LPs. Gurewitz makes a rare, strong vocal appearance on “Dharma and the Bomb”, “Past Is Dead” starts out slow and “In Their Hearts Is Right” pushes the band’s harmonies (or oozin’ ahs, in Bad Religion argot) to new heights but otherwise, tried-and-tested holds sway.
While it’s true that listeners looking for a more rounded rock record may come away feeling a little bludgeoned, the more important point is that for those along for the ride, time has done nothing to dull Graffin and Gurewitz’s songwriting abilities. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is the gleefully vulgar “Fuck You”, which was an inspired pre-release teaser for the album. A searing 2:14 you will want to have back again and again, the song has a clever lyric about being rendered inarticulate by frustration; coming from a band known for their vast vocabulary, it’s an amusing twist on their whole career. Other highlights include “Vanity”, which in its extreme brevity and references to mankind and monkeys echoes “Murder” from 2007’s New Maps of Hell, and “Hello Cruel World”, which unfolds over a comparatively sprawling 3:49 and makes good use of a deft chorus which brings out the best in Graffin.
A succession of yet more confrontational, fiercely intelligent and memorable lyrics set to yet another 35 minutes of consistently searing guitars and drums, True North simply doesn’t need to be original or inventive. Bad Religion’s sound is as effective a shield against the numbing white noise, both political and musical, that makes up much of the world outside as it was in 2007, 1988 or 1979. Notwithstanding that cruel joke from Graffin, we should be able to rely on this singular, fascinating outfit for a while yet; and however bleak the omens as we enter 2013, that’s a reason to be cheerful.