Bad Religion has long been in conflict with itself—not about its secular-humanist ideology, but about its sound. Ever since the veteran punk band disowned its prog-steeped (and underrated) sophomore album, 1983’s Into The Unknown, singer Greg Graffin and crew have veered back and forth between fiery hardcore and the more populist tendencies of arena rock and power pop. Bad Religion’s last two albums embody this schism: 2007’s New Maps Of Hell is scathing and jagged, while 2010’s The Dissent Of Man references Rush and sports an appearance from Tom Petty sideman Mike Campbell. On the group’s 16th full-length, True North, the title’s compass metaphor bears out: Once again, Bad Religion is orienting itself home, to the hardcore scene that spawned it.
On a lesser Bad Religion album, that might have been a bad thing. Some of the band’s most potent moments have been its most melodic, intricate, and progressive. True North leaves little breathing room for such luxuries, but there are bright flashes in songs like “Past Is Dead,” which begins with a brief passage of bleak, jangling folk, the kind that often underlies even the most blistering and distorted Bad Religion song. Accordingly, “Past Is Dead” carries a deeper, darker weight, as does “Robin Hood In Reverse,” a screed that attacks plutocracy and Graffin’s old punching bag, Christianity, while launching majestic rock solos and lifting a line from punk legend Sham 69.
Still, True North manages to navigate the fine line between philosophy and personal politics, a restraint that Bad Religion only rarely nails so evocatively. In spite of its title, “Fuck You” is one of the album’s most eloquent tracks, both musically and lyrically; backed by the band’s signature, nearly symphonic washes of vocal harmony, Graffin packs introspection and a wry irony behind his raised middle finger. Meanwhile the group’s all-star, triple-guitar frontline (founder Brett Gurewitz, Circle Jerks’ Greg Hetson, and Minor Threat’s Brian Baker) weaves a thick tangle of riffs that interlock with a whiplash dynamic. True North’s closest relative in Bad Religion’s catalog is 1992’s Generator—an album that perfectly balances the punk yin and the rock yang that the band has always sought to reconcile. For Bad Religion, that’s always been a perpetual, open-ended process. But on True North, that shotgun marriage not only succeeds, it brings out the most forceful—and the most tuneful—elements of each.