(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #98 – released October 21, 2016)
Track listing: Sloboda Narodu / Swedish Guns / We Got Game / Thieves of State / Occupied / This Thing Was Bound To Happen / Can’t Be Guilty / Committed To The Cause / Running Out Of Love / Teach Me To Forget
I’ll never forget waking up painfully early on November 9, 2016, reaching for my phone and confirming what I and many others had dreaded—the most inconceivable, worst possible outcome of a presidential election in my lifetime (to date, I fear.) Opening Facebook, I scrolled past one confused, incensed, disgusted reaction after another from assorted friends and celebrities until coming across a link to a YouTube clip from The Radio Dept. for their song, “This Thing Was Bound To Happen.” In that moment, as much as I was in a state of shock, I mentally responded, “Well, of course.” Months of anticipation and assuredness, gradually worn down and defeated by time, determination and dumb luck—all of it led not to the outcome we expected or thought we deserved. It all simply felt inevitable now, like the punchline to a bad joke.
That’s not to say The Radio Dept. necessarily predicted this outcome, but the song and its parent album, released less than three weeks before the election, undeniably tapped into themes and feelings analogous to that of the current American political climate. In fact, said album, Running Out Of Love is essentially an extended protest/warning against the rise of fascism in the band’s home country of Sweden. It was decidedly not an overnight development: one of its most pointed and savage tracks, “Occupied”, was initially released as a single back in the summer of 2015.
Before that, the band, which primarily consists of vocalist Johan Duncanson and multi-instrumentalist Martin Larsson was dormant for a number of years due to a legal battle with its record label. I had come on board with Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010; as comps go, it’s nearly up there with Pet Shop Boys’ Discography and The Go-Betweens’ Bellavista Terrace (it even has a lovely cover of the latter band’s “Bachelor Kisses”.) However, like most people, I had first heard them in 2006 on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Prominently placed in the film, their song “Pulling Our Weight” fit right in with a king’s ransom of new wave/post-punk classics from the likes of Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and New Order. Upon hearing it, I guessed Coppola had unearthed a long-lost gem and was surprised to discover it was then only three years old.
On Lesser Matters (2003), Pet Grief (2006), Clinging To A Scheme (2010) and all the singles in-between, The Radio Dept. conceived of and came close to perfecting their own take on a drowsy but hook-laden, 1980s-inspired dream-pop, their distinct instrumental palette falling somewhere between The Cure’s reverb-drenched guitar attack and New Order’s bass-and-synth driven cerebral dance music. Sonically, Running Out Of Love edges towards the latter of those two poles, with the seven-minute “Occupied” a straight-up “Blue Monday” tribute in its insistent thump, thump, thump beat and klaxon-like pings that eventually build to an anxious, relentless fury.
The song’s lyrical content matches and often exceeds the sound in its vehemence. Duncanson’s an even milder-sounding vocalist than New Order’s Bernard Sumner, so when he sings, “It’s a shame how some people claim to be one thing or another / when in fact, it’s nothing but an act,” such brutal honesty is all the more unexpected and effective. This “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach is all over the album. On “We Got Game”, he complains, “So sick of hearing about that middle ground”, for it doesn’t exist with “racist loons / the kind of guys you wouldn’t like to spoon.” Later, “Teach Me To Forget” rhymes its title with the phrase, “’Because baby you’re so good at it,” as the song’s minor key melody and trance beat heighten an anger and disappointment the singer’s melodic croon can barely mask.
A steady rage courses through the bulk of Running Out Of Love. The single “Swedish Guns” proceeds as a call-and-response between the song’s titular objects and the things one can accomplish with them. “You need a helping hand? Get Swedish guns / Secure a piece of land / with Swedish guns,” Duncanson sings, and on and on over a martial/reggae beat. “This Thing Was Bound To Happen” happily buzzes along like vintage Human League, but it’s deceptive, for the resignation of the song title proves to be just a coping mechanism for utter despair (“Now I just want to get out of here / suffocate this fear.”) The Eno-esque instrumental title track consists of delicate synth and guitar licks and an brittle, singular note repeated, morse code-style for over three minutes. It certainly evokes loss—of love, time, perhaps life itself.
Fortunately, while The Radio Dept. never shy away from the horrors of totalitarianism, nor do they wallow in their misery. Their social commentary is steeped in empathy for the afflicted and a call for resistance. “Sloboda Narodu” (the title is a Yugoslav slogan that translates to “Death to fascism, freedom to the people”) is an energetic, percussion-bolstered anthem that kicks off the album on an upbeat note; “We Got Game” is nearly ebullient in its simulation of circa-1990 house music (Inner City, Technotronic) while “Can’t Be Guilty” gently floats along like a cross between ABC and The Blue Nile, its pretty melodic layers perfect for a melancholy scene in a John Hughes film, only one where a character says, “Wake me when the world has settled / then, just give it to me straight.”
This protest/pop hybrid reaches its apotheosis on “Committed To The Cause”. It begins with a melodic bassline overlapping with a second one, the twin hooks soon buoyed by a very early ’90s beat of the sort you’d find on a Happy Mondays or Primal Scream album (only darker.) Minor key verses shift into a major key chorus where Duncanson sings, “And they’re never gonna give it up,” repeatedly until getting to the title. The sublime melody and chord progression evokes potent feelings: defiance, resignation, a sense of the inevitable. Even during its extended instrumental coda, heavy with irresistible house-music piano and a synth filigree that could’ve been lifted off a Toto (!) record, the song’s momentum is sustained and deepened—you almost don’t want it to end, but it abruptly does, and the spooky title track carries these feelings further, all the way through the closing, quietly seething “Teach Me To Forget”.
I listened to Running Out Of Love incessantly before and after the election; admittedly, it didn’t seem especially more prescient or relevant after November 8 than it previously did—I’m even cautious to say it captured a specific moment, given that, at this writing, we’re decidedly still living in such a moment. Regardless, I seek pleasure in pop music as much as stimulation and provocation. Like most “political albums”, this one has plenty of the latter elements but crucially, just as much of the former. For good and for ill, the concepts The Radio Dept. confront and dissect here will always be relevant.
Up next: “We took your land, and made it our land.”
“Committed To The Cause”:
“Teach Me To Forget”: