The Radio Dept. have belonged in the top ranks of indie pop since the middle of the last decade, making immaculate music with indelible melodies and sardonic wit, much like fellow countrymen Jens Lekman and the Tough Alliance. The band’s sonic touchstones are familiar — shoegaze, ’80s pop of the New Order variety, house music, etc. — but these influences are filtered through their unassuming yet distinctive aesthetic, which treats Johan Duncason’s vocals like another instrument in a weightless bed of sound.
At times, Duncanson’s singing brings to mind Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor or Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, both of whom are similarly delicate vocalists who make challenging lyrics ingratiating. Like those bands, The Radio Dept. features rigid precision that belies the music’s easy charms. Their entire oeuvre has a near-ambient quality to it and is about as easily listenable as song-based music can be.
Yet, their powerful fourth album, Running Out of Love, finds the duo (made up of Duncanson and Martin Larsson) channeling dance music, specifically house and techno, as a vessel through which to bring their fervent politics to the forefront. Dance music has always had political import, whether it be disco soundtracking gay clubs in the ’70s or more recent artists like M.I.A. and Anohni employing it to reflect uneasy times. Here, Duncanson and Larsson enact this tradition by pitting their music against the uneasy changes taking over their home country.
While it’s easy to think of Sweden as being a paradisaical liberal dream, Duncanson and Larsson dispel this myth in a recent interview with Pitchfork, touching on the normalization of racism and growing economic disparity at home. Referencing the growing conservatism and isolationist politics that are spreading across Europe, as well as the declining standard of living for virtually all citizens, Duncanson says, “It’s a scary time. It occupies our minds.” This mental occupation is an infringement on personal freedom that music, and art as a whole, represents.
Throughout Running Out of Love, the duo tackles this infringement directly, as on “Occupied”, which some have read as a hate-letter to their former record label, Labrador. While Radio Dept. has been mired in a legal battle with the label (Running Out Of Love is reportedly their last album with it), the lyrics of “Occupied” speak to greater concerns, detailing how naivety and goodness can be thwarted by self-serving wickedness. “We Got Game” charts similar, if more dire, territory, implicating the government as a police state, with Duncanson singing: “If in power / One whiskey sour / And everyone I love jailed within the hour”. The album’s most overt statement is “Swedish Guns”, which expresses disgust at Sweden’s growing arms industry.
Perhaps Running Out of Love’s greatest achievement is how it takes on complicity, both lyrically and sonically. Two of the album’s standout songs, “Can’t Be Guilty” and “Teach Me to Forget”, mix the personal and the political, detailing the ways in which we attempt to purge ourselves of guilt by inaction. The former uses sleep and dreaming as a means to remove one from a situation, like the Ostrich Syndrome, first starting as an interior monologue, but then ending with this chilling lyric: “You could close your eyes and go to sleep with me / As long as we do, we can’t be guilty”. In general, “Can’t Be Guilty” illustrates how inaction is insidious and germinates first in one mind, but can easily spread to another.
The album’s final song, “Teach Me to Forget”, features lyrics that could similarly be read as a document of a relationship, but in the greater context of the album, it takes on a deeper, more resonant meaning. By asking another to teach you how to forget, you are erasing the history that created the present. Privilege can create an isolation from the real world. Even for those of us that are sensitive to the events that determine our political future, it’s easy sometimes to sit back and let the situation play out rather than be active in its happening.
The Radio Dept.’s take on the complex subject of complicity (by making music that is easily pleasurable yet politically dense) is superb, and Running Out of Love is an album that, without paying attention to it, can slip easily into the background as balmy sonic wallpaper. However, once you give the album the proper attention it deserves, it reveals itself to be a startling and incensed document of two men who believe that music still has the social utility to affect change.