The title of the first single from Bad Religion’s new album, “True North,” is unprintable in this newspaper, but the two-word expletive advises one to have sexual relations with oneself. Because this is a punk-rock record, the title line is belted out with considerable gusto, chased through the 2-minute, 14-second song by a sprinting wolf pack of guitars. And yet, because this is Bad Religion, one of the smartest punk bands since their founding in 1979, the lyrics are not at all what you might expect.
Greg Graffin, the California sextet’s lead singer, expresses some sympathy for the need to vent; sometimes a rude retort “is the most satisfying sound.” But he also points out that this well-worn phrase won’t solve any problems; it’s just “the easiest thing to do,” because “it takes no thought at all.” In fact, rely on the phrase too much, and “your friends might not want you around.” Bad Religion, famous for challenging unthinking behavior in mainstream society, is just as willing to confront the same in the punk community.
“It’s a perfect punk-rock title,” says Graffin, 48, “but the song questions that Pavlovian response. One of our great thematic traditions in Bad Religion has been to question human nature. It can make you feel good to go through with those knee-jerk things, and sometimes it’s even justified. But that kind of reaction to frustration almost never leads to an intellectual understanding, so it’s not fully satisfying. And it’s been an objective of mine since I started writing songs to include both intellect and energy.”
There’s no lack of either on “True North,” which has become the first Bad Religion album, after 20 previous tries, to crack Billboard’s Top 30 albums chart, peaking at No. 19. Only one of the 16 high-speed songs tops three minutes, and seven are shorter than two minutes. But within those short bursts of adrenaline, Graffin and his co-writer, Brett Gurewitz, question their listeners’ assumptions again and again.
A song such as “Past Is Dead” sounds like another punk-rock anthem about seizing the moment. But again the lyrics subvert the title, this time suggesting that “instant gratification” is designed by the ruling class to create “intellectual poverty.” Another song points out that everyone believes that what’s “In Their Hearts Is Right,” whether they’re religious fundamentalists or punk anarchists. Perhaps some realistic skepticism is called for on all sides.
It was the band’s celebration of rationality that earned Bad Religion an invitation to join such fellow nonbelievers as Richard Dawkins, Tim Minchin and Adam Savage at the Reason Rally on the Mall a year ago this month. As he sang the national anthem, Graffin was flanked by U.S. armed forces veterans who disproved the notion that there are no atheists in a foxhole. In an entertainment industry where atheists are more closeted than gays, Graffin has long been blunt about his secularism.
“I don’t mind if other people call me an atheist,” Graffin says, “but I call myself a naturalist. Atheism doesn’t tell you much about what I do believe in; the term naturalist opens up the discussion better. I want to believe that we can live in a rational society, just as our enlightened forefathers hoped, but as you look around you see just as much evidence that our policy decisions are based more on emotions than rationality. The more we can further science education, the more we can move toward rationality.”