ok, so I’m starting a series here on spectacular failures of albums, the ones that came after the hyped debut or the critical/commercial breakthrough. The ones that came out of the divorce, the lineup change, the recording with Steve Albini, scrapping those sessions, and then recording with their mom in their childhood practice garage. Turns out, when the band is out of ideas and the pressure is driving them insane, they produce some of the most unique material that often appears in a catalog. Sometimes this pressure weighs down on every album by an artist (See: Big Star, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.), but usually they break out of it after an album or two, or just plain break up. Future installments will probably include ablums by The Beta Band, X, PJ Harvey, Badly Drawn Boy, Granddaddy, De La Soul, Sondre Lerche, The Replacements, and, if I can dare justify it, We Shall All Be Healed by the Mountain Goats. Given my current rate of updating this thing, I should be done by 2013. Today I’m starting with a punk album.
People will spend hour talking about what the worst Bad Religion album is. Crust punks old enough to know about it (/anyone with half an hour to spend on wikipedia) often go for the disowned-by-the-band psychadelic EP Into the Unknown. More contemporary fans usually chose something from their major label days, often centering on one of two absolutely atrocious albums 1998’s No Substance” (see: the album’s title) or 2000’s marginally better The New America. Both were recorded by big budget producers, and lacked singer Greg Graffin’s songwriting foil, guitarist Bret Guerewitz, who quit the band shortly after they signed with Atlantic to focus on running Epitaph Records. Gurewitz was the melodic, passionate counterpart to Graffin’s verbose rants, which could at times regress into unlistenable feedback-laden near spoken word tracks. Gurewitz was present on the recording of Bad Religion’s 1994 major label debut, the excellent “Stranger Than Fiction,” but left the band in a huff before their follow up, 1996’s The Gray Race.
The Gray Race was the album where punks stopped caring about Bad Religion, probably because it was the album where Bad Religion finally called punk out on all its shit. If punk is a rallying call to change, a 180 second (maximum), 400 decible (minimum), snotty-as-schoolyard-struggle call to change, then it would take someone really smart to turn out anything but sloganeering. Greg Graffin, author of several books, holder of a PhD in zoology, professor of life sciences UCLA, is one smart cookie. I would guess the last moments, then, in Bad Religion’s original lineup, involved Gred reading the lyrics sheet for Bret’s song “Hooray for me” (chorus: “Hooray for me….And FUCK YOU!”), and saying “You’ve got to be kidding me? This is as good as we can do? Do you actually thing there’s any chance that this song will mean anything to anyone?” followed by Bret storming out. The Grey Race was the album where the band had something to prove. It is Graffin’s show, through and through, and he is pissed.
In the only misstep on this album cobbled of broken glass and bitter funeral rites, the band got former Cars leader and Weezer producer Ric Ocasek to handle production on the album. What should be the loudest, most grating album in Bad Religion’s catalog sounds…well…like a Weezer album. Lyricaly, though, the songs come with restraining orders. From the defeated “Punk Rock Song”(whose chorus opens with “this is just a punk rock song…”), to the absolutely caustic “Pity The Dead” where Graffin commands us to “look at all the living, and you’ll ask yourself why we pity the dead,” The Gray Race is about as dour and hopeless as a Bad Religion album ever got.
The moments of levity sound all the more out of place on The Gray Race. First single “A Walk” reaches for humor, but ends up just barely cracking a smile, ultimately is all tangled in metaphor and a ridiculous 80s metal bass line, and the melody of “Drunk Sincerity” tries to enliven a song, which takes swipes at just about every gutter punk band signed to Bret Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records.
The album’s two closing tracks act as a mission statement. The most pointed song on the album is certainly the penultimate track, “Come Join Us,” a rant about the futility and conformity of the punk movement. The song begins with just Graffin and a guitar, sounding almost like what Phil Ochs might’ve conjured had he lived to 50, and the words “so you say you gotta know why the world goes around/and you can’t find the truth in the things you’ve found/and you’re scared shitless ‘cuz evil abounds/come and join us” Thirty seconds later, the supportive community has become just as blind and useless as the movements it rails against: “All we want to do is change your mind/All you’ve got to do is close your eyes.” Brilliantly, though, Graffin doesn’t even let the kid who is being hogwashed off the hook here, labeling him, “I can tell you are lookin’ for a way to live/where truth is determined by consensus/full of codified arbitrary directives/so come join us.” Every bit of disappointment and failure that Graffin is so heavily harboring comes out on this track. The one thing he hasn’t done yet: tell us what to do.
Most Bad Religion albums follow that two step recipe: find a complaint, suggest a way to change. Well, the closest listeners get on The Grey Race is the final track, “Cease.” The track was originally written for Graffin’s solo album, American Lession, which had come out month’s prior to The Gray Race, but it fit perfectly into the Bad Religion mold. The song stumbles through the back of another crude, all ages show, another violent “protest,” all the scenes of disorganized, ineffective, stupid punk rock lifestyle that Graffin has been talking to us about, and then that chorus, shouted with a bullhorn, “What pretension: everlasting peace. Everything must cease.” It’s hard to get the scope of those lines. Does he mean the baseless idealism of the punk community? Is he stepping back and referring to an unending cycle of global violence? Is he even talking about literal violence, or he talking about impact of words; damning his own complaints? Yes, probably. The most nihilistic song in Bad Religion’s Catalog (except, maybe, for “We’re All Gonna Die For Our Arrogance”) suggests total destruction and rebuilding might be all that can save us.
After The Gray Race and two atrocious albums, the band was dropped by/left Atlantic and re-signed with Epitaph. Their albums, since then, have gotten successively shorter and their songs have become little more than 5 or 6 middle aged guys running desperately on a treadmill and trying to pretend that the scenery is changing. The Grey Race, for me, predicted it all.
here are two very good british bands performing beautiful spoken word songs which remind me of summer, despite the fact that one of them is called “moments in the snow.” something to cheer you up after all the nihilism.