by Chad Jewett
The Shape Of Punk To Come, the 1998 art-hardcore tour de force from Swedish quintet Refused, is the most important punk album of the last two decades. Like London Calling and Out Of Step and Repeater before it, The Shape was an LP that made joyous art out of a gutsy, audacious resistance to the painted lines of genre and expectation. The trick to Refused’s masterpiece, however — perhaps more than any of those other bellwether classics — was that the record defied hardcore while reworking everything the genre did best: its knack for drama, its leftist politics, its ability to roar with sudden, utter ferocity. A song like “New Noise” devoted about 15% of its runtime to scronking techno and ambient noise, but those modernist touches made the rest of the song’s heaving post-hardcore and metallic flare-ups feel revolutionary. Suddenly all that mattered was impact, no matter the medium. The Shape Of Punk To Come made a genre quickly turning reactionary into something defiantly new. It took away all excuses: “How can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice / We need new noise.”
You get the sense on Freedom, the band’s first album since that 1998 breakthrough, that Refused are trying desperately to be the change they wish they saw in the world. Ironically, the kind of free-form playfulness and daring sonic quilting that marked The Shape Of Punk To Come has seemingly surfaced – and in some instances become the rule – everywhere but in the aesthetic world the title actually names. So that’s where Refused go to find it. Gorgeously produced and thrillingly adventurous, Freedom is an album with a thesis statement perhaps even more daring than The Shape. Where that earlier album announced that our only hope lay in punk’s power to galvanize and inspire (“Boredom won’t get me tonight”; “I only get this fucking chance once and I just can’t let it be”), Freedom welds together the liberation theology of retro soul, the proletarian punch of the blues, the politicized sonic boom of hip-hop, the (potential) egalitarianism of EDM, the gender/sexual progressivism of disco and funk. Two songs here are co-written by Shellback, a mega-pop producer best known for his work with Taylor Swift, an artist whose pro-art stances and sneaky-progressive lyrics and persona represents the kind of expansiveness Refused seem to have in mind. It’s obvious a band as adventurous as Refused would never try to make The Shape Of Punk To Come twice. Instead, at their best, they’re simply embodying its promise.
Freedom has the kind of digital punch and glittering sheen that you might associate with modern pop music, which makes its narratives – devoted to hard-left politics, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and a defiant rejection of capital and its inequities – all the more subversive. When Dennis Lyxzén skewers out-of-control militarism and France’s exploitation of Africa over jittery funk-rock and disco-punk on “Servants of Death” and “Françafrique” the effect is at once stylishly dissonant and arresting. “Françafrique” especially is as catchy and well-designed a song as Refused has written. That the track doubles as a withering critique of French abuse of the Congo highlights the album’s central strategy: Make them move, then make them think. Refused always produced body music (any given YouTube live clip will serve to underline this), but now the activist language powering those kinetics is at its most clear and urgent.
The Shape Of Punk To Come regularly overlaid its politics with a certain modish fashion-sense; Freedom minces fewer words, instead letting all the band’s still-obvious knack for style center around the record’s air-tight production and affection for R&B and dance music. And if the boogie guitar twitch of “Servants of Death” and “Destroy The Man” border mid-career Zeppelin a little uncomfortably, recall that the one Led Zeppelin album that seemed to have any artfulness on its side – 1975’s Physical Graffiti – seems to be the only one that Refused listens to either. Never mind that “Destroy The Man” gets abstract enough to pair cooing girl-group vocals to side-winding atonal metal riffs. You could hunt down Freedom’s blues-rock moments in mid-career Bowie/The New York Dolls, or Aerosmith. It’s a safe bet which is more likely. Indeed, in some ways, the “uncool” sounds the band has chosen to hammer into punk shapes recalls the similar alchemy that Daft Punk received overwhelming critical praise for on 2012’s Random Access Memories. Except Refused are using this stuff to remind you about dire contemporary realities.
But while several songs on Freedom work to turn unexpected pop touchstones into hardcore, the lion’s share of the album does the reverse – whittling and molding the band’s thunderous mass into compulsively listenable confections. Album opener “Elektra” features all the nimble twists and mathematical turns as “Deadly Rhythm” but, like the similarly adventurous Dillinger Escape Plan on Ire Works, the band now directs all of that stuff to suspenseful verses and brash climaxes. The song’s final refrain, a shout of “Nothing has changed!” rife with double-meaning, is one of Freedom’s highlights and one of its defining moments: this is a record of real sonic pleasures stitched to equally real anger about the state of the world. Refused’s ability to bottle up its pressure till it pops remains one of punk music’s great thrills. That we enjoy art at all in a contemporary climate so fractious and unjust remains the band’s great theme. “366” does similar work, its resemblance to the high-def art-core of The Shape Of Punk To Come cleverly designed to offer one of the album’s most basic and most convincing empathetic challenges: “That’s someone’s sister / That’s someone’s son”, delivered in Lyxzén’s harried shout – a fiery instrument that hasn’t lost a bit of its sinewy snap.
The best moments on Freedom are the ones that split the difference between the punk bombast of “Dawkins Christ” (a nuanced take on dogma, both religious and atheist) and “Elektra” and the gnarled funk of “Servants of Death”. “Old Friends/New War” binds hip-hop production tricks (syrupy octave-dropped vocals, breath-as-percussion hiss) to an absolutely gargantuan beat — drummer David Sandström is without a doubt the album’s MVP – and a set of hard-strummed acoustic guitars chopped into cubist angles. It adds up to something tough to define and impossible to ignore, and its one of the record’s most unexpected and infectious joys to hear Lyxzén screaming a characteristically succinct slogan – “Stuck in an uneven fight!” – over a musical bed this colorful and original, protest-folk powered with trap-rap thump and dissonant black-metal guitar. Later, “Thought Is Blood” finds Kristofer Steen’s guitar chopped up into atonal sheets, sounding like the dropping, rubbery synths of modern EDM. When the song takes a sudden, mid-song turn into spikey punk its genuinely unexpected, even if there are few bands as valued for their chaotic, outsized climaxes as Refused. Even more surprising is the album’s closing, dirge-like “Useless Europeans”, the song’s six minutes always threatening to boil over but never quite reaching that heat as Lyxzén decries the separatism that undergirds the comfort of EU nations like the band’s native Sweden. The song finds Refused figuring out the subtle strategy of haunting, rather than shocking, us with the truth.
Freedom operates as a punk album gleaning lessons from the last five years of Top 40 music, designed to then turn around and ask tough questions about the economic and political systems that such art-as-commerce either underwrites or blankets over. Yet like, say, Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Kanye West’s Yeezus (the latter of which is a much nearer relative than you might think), Freedom occasionally allows its beauteous production and sound-design to steer the ship. And while there aren’t as many songs here as indelible as “New Noise” or “Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine”, Refused come damn close with the coiled post-hardcore of “Elektra”, the cinematic dance-punk shimmy of “Françafrique” and the absolutely fantastic “War On The Palaces”, a song that takes the garage-rock heart beating under so much of The Shape (and certainly Lyxzén’s post-Refused soul-punk troupe The International Noise Conspiracy) and turns it into a thrilling Motown barnburner. Complete with “Get Ready” horns and one of the three or four best hooks Dennis Lyxzén has ever written, “War On The Palaces” condenses the righteous indignation and explosive energy of Freedom into three-and-a-half radiant, hungry minutes. The Shape Of Punk To Come might have been Refused’s London Calling, but with Freedom the band has made their Combat Rock. It’s no coincidence that, like “Rock The Casbah”, “War On The Palaces” believes with all its heart that the edifices of power don’t stand much chance against art that makes you move.