The year 2010 was kind to the Radio Dept. The Swedish trio released Clinging to a Scheme in April, which was good enough to take the top spot on PopMatters’ year-end Best of Indie-Pop list. This followed a quiet four years for the band — while they released two EPs during that time, most people last heard the Radio Dept. back in 2006, when several of the band’s songs were featured in the Sofia Coppola-directed film Marie Antoinette.
That the two-disc Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 came, then, just eight months after Clinging to a Scheme is surprising on the band’s own terms, but the timing turns out to be perfect. If Clinging to a Scheme was the sound of a band emerging from a long, beautiful slumber, then Passive Aggressive is further reward for long-time fans who had been patiently waiting the whole time. And considering that the indie-pop world is still crushed out on vintage-leaning bands, the double album is sure to earn the band more new fans.
There are nice, even 14 tracks on both discs. The first features singles from the band’s three LPs and a few single a-sides. Disc Two, meanwhile, stacks unreleased tracks with a smattering of b-sides from the band’s singles. While the best things about the band haven’t changed — wistful tunes, rich atmospherics, and Johan Duncanson’s barely-above-a-whisper delivery — Passive Aggressive captures the subtle ways the band has evolved. Disc One opener “Why Won’t You Talk About It”, a standout track on the band’s 2003 debut LP Lesser Matters, is three minutes of tightly-packed distortion. It features the kind of guitar screeches and general sloppiness that’s missing on the more polished Clinging to a Scheme. The song skillfully balances noise and melody, providing a blueprint for some impressive noise-pop bands that would follow, like Weekend and No Age.
Some of the fuzz spills over to “Where Damage Isn’t Already Done”, which to my ears is the best track on a compilation full of outstanding singles. Maybe because it’s the last time the Radio Dept. was ever this freewheeling. The band’s drums especially would never again be this beautifully messy. No, really: by their second LP Pet Grief, the band had turned to using a drum machine. The moment was brief, but crashing cymbals seemed a perfect counterpoint to Duncanson’s detached vocals. It’s charming because the band sounds young.
The bits and pieces of diverse instrumentation are excellent (the piano romp of “Freddie and the Trojan Horse”, the playful horns in “Heaven’s on Fire”) but the Radio Dept. are content with sacrificing breadth in sound for depth of songwriting. The catch is you’ll need to have the liner notes handy. Duncanson gives Freddie in “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” an earful; he’s referring to Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who Duncanson accuses of turning his back on workers after winning the election in 2006: “The Trojan Horse you came in left a stench/A carcass in the trench”. The everyday struggles of common people is a familiar refrain across the band’s songs.
Some of the album’s best social commentary is offered in the samples, when the band tugs at the roots of rebellion in hip-hop and rock. During the break in “Never Follow Suit”, a graffiti artist from the 1983 hip-hop documentary Style Wars asserts, “All these other people who don’t write/They’re excluded/I don’t care about them”. It’s as poignant a moment as any on Passive Aggressive. Later, the band nods to its own noise rock roots on “Heaven’s on Fire”, which opens with a snippet of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore: “I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture”. Maybe Duncanson defers to samples because he’s smart enough to know that the sound of his own soft voice can’t always match the conviction in his words.
Compilations with b-sides are usually a mixed bag, and so tempered expectations are required. “Liebling’s” propulsive drums and wall of noise makes it a classic Lesser Matters-era track, and “Messy Enough” echoes the catchy dance-pop of older tracks like “Pet Grief” (featured on the similarly-titled LP; it’s one notable omission on Disc One, though we’re splitting hairs here). The trippy electronica of “Mad About the Boy” veers into M83 territory, but sounds more out-of-place than anything.
There are a few tracks that could have earned Disc One billing: the slow-tempo “You and Me Then” and spectacular closer “The One”, which is as close as Duncanson ever gets to stretching his voice (his high notes have shades of Elliott Smith — who knew?). That’s just evidence of the band’s impressive body of work. But the second disc mostly floats along in the hazy atmospherics the band has built for themselves in their 15-year career. It’s not such a bad place to be. It’s easy to listen to Passive Aggressive — whether you’re new to the band or not — and conclude that the Radio Dept. will spend the next 15 years churning out much of the same great songs, however infrequent the output is. But here’s one request: more cymbals.