Bad Religion do two things very well. First, they can play at a relentlessly fast pace while still sounding cogent, coherent, and accessible. Second, they layer their songs with an array of harmonies, call-and-response vocals, and generally give the impression they spend as much time rehearsing a cappella as rocking out.
They can also, when they put their mind to it, write extraordinarily good songs. Los Angeles Is Burning, 21st Century Digital Boy, and Generator are all classics of modern punk. But the danger is – especially on first impressions – that their facility with speed and epic harmonies can create an impression of songwriting excellence where none exists. True North is a decent album, but one with no real standout tracks – more of a weekday night snuggle for their longtime fans than a kinky Valentine’s Day rekindling.
And so the first half of the album passes by with only occasional highlights to distinguish it. Endless Greed has a great riff in the mould of 1989’s No Control, but the vocal line lacks imagination and variety – a fault also inflicted on the mid-paced Hello Cruel World and the ever so slightly surf-y Dharma And The Bomb. Robin Hood In Reverse and Fuck You will provide lyrical thrills for the political punk junkies, the latter surrendering entertainingly to the ad hominen – after decades of verbose discourse and persuasion, they seem to say, something’s gotta give.
But then comes a string of songs filled with winning hooks and renewed energy. There are fast tracks throughout, but Vanity is simply frantic, a reminder to friendly rivals NOFX that these old men aren’t done yet, and it’s over in a minute. The choruses of In Their Hearts Is Right and Nothing To Dismay ditch the thesaurus for simple, infectious, effective sloganising – the latter’s “No! No! No security!” simply itches to be played live. Best of all, Dept Of False Hope comes a hair’s breadth from classic status, the half-time chorus sitting proudly over a startlingly metallic riff, and the oohs and aahs sprinkled over it no longer the sprig of parsley on a Harvester kiev but a garnish of guts and glory.
So it’s business as usual for Bad Religion. 30 years on, they still rail against corruption, greed, and irrational stupidity, except that the PhD-wielding Greg Graffin doesn’t just preach evolution, he teaches it at UCLA. They haven’t slowed down – if anything, this album marks an acceleration, which if they could only match up with the songwriting from The Process Of Belief era, would produce a worthy epitaph for a sterling punk career.