The Radio Dept. take on the political crises of the day with megalithic electronic epics, adding another essential release to their discography.
Whether it's the rousing folk of Pete Seeger or the thrashing anthems of Rage Against the Machine, protest music is most often associated with the guitar. Perhaps the easy portability of the instrument has helped it in this regard -- any asshole can whip out an acoustic guitar and instigate a chant at a rally, after all. Guitars can easily be made loud and aggressive, and they continue to be the favored instruments of straight white men everywhere with something to say.
Dance and synthpop, by contrast, may by turns be considered unserious, feminine, and/or gay. Yet because of this, dance music in particular has long been a deeply political genre, at times relegated to underground and invisible communities that congregate illicitly in the night. The lyrics may not speak straightforwardly to political issues, or may not exist at all, but something about a commanding, assertive, relentless beat seeping in from a culture's marginalia seems better calibrated to protest than anything else. This much has become increasingly apparent at least in the past decade or so, with albums like the Knife's Shaking the Habitual setting a new gold standard for politically charged electronic music.
In this light, it is not surprising that Sweden's the Radio Dept. chose to scale back on guitars and dial up the synth and dance elements on Running Out of Love, their fourth and most explicitly political album to date. Album centerpiece "Occupied", a looming, brooding titan of understated dance, captures their mission statement most explicitly and effectively. Crisp, "Blue Monday"-esque beats whirl around an ominous synth foundation that echoes Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks score. Johan Duncanson's muted vocals are hard to discern without careful concentration, but the band has said the track concerns legal troubles with their label Labrador, who they unsuccessfully sued leading up to the album's release. One verse towards the end of the track does manage to pierce through very clearly: "We all wish there was a hell for some people / Some kind of retribution," Duncanson intones, "but as you know that's not the way it goes / When was it ever? / 'Cause wicked people thrive when the likes of you go down." Ouch. The track goes beyond mere personal grievance and connects with larger themes of power and capital, making it one of the Radio Dept.'s most searing statements yet.
While devotees of albums like 2010's excellent Clinging to a Scheme may miss the raw, personal vulnerability of that record, Running Out of Love is most memorable when it breaks away clearly and charts its own course. With "Swedish Guns", the Radio Dept. channel their inner '90s rave and construct their version of a banger. One small complaint is that the lyrics do some disservice to the track with their repetitiveness: "What's that in the air? / The Swedish guns / And what is that right there? / That's Swedish guns / Let's have a second look / It's Swedish guns / Must be by the book / It's Swedish guns", goes the first verse (in case you missed it, the song is called "Swedish Guns"). Still, most pop music can be forgiven for occasional lyrical laziness when the music brings the words to life, as it so engagingly does here.
Other moments on the album will be more familiar to longtime fans, especially in the midsection. "Committed to the Cause" and "Can't Be Guilty" started as outtakes from Clinging to a Scheme, and their ethereal guitar-driven sound shows it. Yet these nonetheless weave themselves neatly into the album's narrative, and rather than unfocusing the overall product they simply make it more nuanced. With the latter track Duncanson and bandmate Martin Carlberg take on the apathy that allows citizens to deny political responsibility and protect their own egos from the threat of culpability. "If I'm innocent when I dream, then I'll be dreaming… I'm fast asleep and can't be guilty", Duncanson sings, the track itself sounding like a gentle lullaby. "This Thing Was Bound to Happen" likewise embodies a kind of ironic apathy to prove a point, with Duncanson channeling all the clever yet nihilistic ennui of a Haruki Murakami protagonist.
The instrumental title track, arriving in the penultimate spot on the track list, is the most emotionally affecting of the whole bunch, riding as it does over a single note repeated while gently supportive drums and luminescent guitar cascade in the background. If Running Out of Love the album is often more cerebral than vulnerable, "Running Out of Love" the song assures the listener that the Radio Dept. haven't forgotten entirely about their inner life, for all their sociocultural and macroeconomic preoccupations. "Teach Me to Forget" weaves together these seemingly disparate threads for an arresting closing statement. In other hands the song could easily have become a maximalist rager in the order of Crystal Castles' "Not in Love", but the Radio Dept. bury what might have been skyward-reaching synths and bone-rattling bass deep, deep below ground, giving the song a restless yet redemptive feel.
While the Radio Dept. have long had a political bent, Running Out of Love is likely to go down as something of an oddball in their discography for making politics so central. If ever there was a year to do this though, 2016 is that year, so props to the band for good timing at least. This may not be their best album -- that title still goes to Clinging to a Scheme, for now -- but it's still incredibly good. Hearing the duo's take on megalithic electronic epics not only makes for a worthy listen, it helps to illuminate other parts of their catalogue and adds nuance to our notion of who the Radio Dept. are and what they can be. Running Out of Love is another essential release from one of the finest indie pop bands this side of the 21st century.