Review Summary: Bad Religion still serving as model of consistency with True North
Over the last 30 years, Southern California punk rockers Bad Religion have become an institution. They have established themselves as one of the hardest working bands, never taking more than a few years off between records. Although they hit a period of decline starting in the mid 90s, most of their work since 2002's The Process of Belief has been as sure as a smoking solo sizzling off the strings of Brett Gurewitz's guitar. True North marks their 16th full length album, and once again they've opened a tantalizing bag of tricks for their fans.
True North avoids the pitfalls that some of their weaker albums have fallen into. When Bad Religion albums go awry, it's either because they're trying to churn out an overproduced syrupy mess for the Warped Tour crowd, or else there isn't enough melody and it gets boring. The production on their latest album is more sugary than its predecessor, 2010's Dissent of Man, though True North holds the advantage of being more consistent.
Dissent of Man was a good record in its own right but it had a different tone from most of their recent works; it felt more like a melodic rock and roll record that just happened to politically conscious. True North gets back to the business of punk rock. The closest comparison within their discography would be Against the Grain. Pushing 50, Greg Graffin and crew don't possess the same level of anger they once did, but the sonic aggression and sense of urgency on True North bear strong parallels to the band's landmark 1990 release, Against the Grain.
As usual, Bad Religion exercise their penchant for well thought out, in your face political lyrics. "Robin Hood in Reverse" sees Graffin blasting the Supreme Court for their 2008 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which asserted that corporations are people and gave them wide latitude to make campaign contributions to political candidates.
"Past is Dead," meanwhile, takes the general public to task for their slovenly approach to education. It discusses how people don't pay attention to history, and therefore don't have the advantage of historical precedent upon which to base their decisions. Graffin unloads: "Who can say what constitutes the most important sector of society?/ The dominant portion seek an instant gratification/ And are proud of intellectual poverty."
Yet in the same breath, Bad Religion are a band also capable of taking a much more subtle approach by speaking in thought provoking metaphor. The album's title track talks about trying to find a location on a map and using it as a metaphor for finding your own moral code. The catchy, driving and forceful delivery fully drives the point home.
Also of note is lead single "F*** You," which basically says you don't always need a well thought out argument; sometimes you just need to say f*** you! The tempo varies throughout the song, tossing in a tasty guitar solo following a slow paced bridge.
"Hello Cruel World" is the album's sole slow tempo song, and by far the album's longest cut at just under four minutes. The slower pace allows the band to focus on their harmony section, an often overlooked component of Bad Religion's sound. It leads into a flowing guitar solo before the song's final refrain, with powerful clashes coming from drummer Brooks Wackerman near the end.
"Head Full of Ghosts," "In Their Hearts is Right," and "Popular Consensus" sound the most like old school Against the Grain or No Control era Bad Religion with their punishing and frenetic fury. "Popular Consensus" in particular is very intriguing, as Graffin seems to be modifying an old position that once seemed ironclad for him. He approaches matters from the government's position, asserting that just because the public demands something doesn't mean they are necessarily right. His claim that "popular consensus doesn't mean much to me" is evidence of dramatic development of thought for a man who once argued so forcefully for the role of citizen in government on 1987's "You Are the Government."
The biggest musical departure comes on "Dharma and the Bomb," a sun soaked retro tune which sees Gurewitz taking lead vocal, referencing I Dream of Genie and the Bhagavad Gita in his ominous lower register.
True North succeeds in all of the key areas a Bad Religion album needs to deliver, and should satisfy fans hungry for more. It presents a decided contrast to Dissent of Man, which was a much more thoughtful and mellowed out album. It would have been intriguing to see what the band could have accomplished had they pushed that sound further, though True North captures a well done take on the sound they've spent the better part of three decades championing.