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Bad Religion, ‘True North’ (Epitaph)

You know, like the Frank Ocean song? / Photo by Myriam Santos
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: January 22, 2013
Label: Epitaph

On “Fuck You,” the latest radio-unfriendly riposte from melodic punks Bad Religion, frontman Greg Graffin juxtaposes the basest phrase in English with a reference to Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. For a singer who’s made a career of marrying lowbrow impulses to highbrow elocutions — Graffin holds a doctorate in zoology, after all — it’s his starkest association to date, and its boldness makes for an energizing new chapter in punk’s best academic-wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing story. Joey Ramone, God rest his soul, likely never envisioned punk this erudite.

Ever since Bad Religion formed in 1979 as a quartet of fresh-faced SoCal teens, their punk savagery and merry melodies have belied their intellect. While pop-punk peers in the Descendents whined about their parents, and Social Distortion sang about love in another state of mind, Graffin & Co. outlined devolution theory on “We’re Only Gonna Die.” If punk was thinking man’s hard rock, these guys earned their collective master’s at an early age. In the ’90s, as younger bands like Green Day and the Offspring went multiplatinum, our heroes only chalked up one gold record, suggesting that maybe they were too smart for their own good.

But on their 16th(!) full-length, True North, the group’s highly evolved savoir-faire proves their greatest asset. Abetting Dr. Graffin and his SAT-ready vocab (words like “plutocrat,” “wont,” and “declination”), the three guitarists and killer rhythm section (drum madman Brooks Wackerman in particular) have crafted Bad Religion’s most consistently engaging album since 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction (the one that went gold, BTW). That’s because it also ranks among their most concise: Nearly half of the songs here burn out before the two-minute mark, making for their shortest record overall since 1992’s Generator. Such fat-trimming gives the album an edge sorely lacking on the group’s aughts albums, and results in one of the smartest moves they’ve ever made.

From the title track to the infectiously catchy closer “Changing Tide,” True North delivers one succinct, poppy punk tune after another, covering such socio-political topics as religious parasites and national avarice, along with, of course, lots and lots of advocacy for atheism. Moreover, it does this with “oh yeah” backup vocals, slide whistles (seriously!), and clever, unforgettable hooks like, “This is the tale of Robin Hood in reverse.” Even when they dabble in boilerplate banality, they gild their songwriting with savvy touches: The album’s most confessional song, the mid-tempo “Hello Cruel Word,” cloaks a fairly standard tune about alienation in chunky guitars, intricately arranged vocal harmonies, and maybe the band’s best use of keyboards since their apocryphal 1983 prog experiment Into the Unknown.

The album’s only drawback is Graffin’s ongoing case of old-man voice. His sandpapery near-monotone works well when contrasted with his bandmates’ harmonies, but it lacks the solo impact it had on Bad Religion classics like Against the Grain and No Control, rendering new songs like “In Their Hearts Is Right” fairly orthodox until the chorus stacks one recitation of “Everybody knows” atop another. It’s forced him to adjust his delivery, but for a band obsessed with the decline of Western civilization, the fact that they’re exploring new facets of themselves suggests that Dr. Graffin’s evolutionary theories might be onto something.