If Bad Religion are the masters of their own compass - and as one of the longest-running punk outfits in existence they very much are - then True North is a direction in which their best work lies. This is Greg Graffin and co. at their best, closer to their raw origins than in 2010's The Dissent of Man and rattling along at a jaunty pace which neither outstays its welcome nor leaves before we’re ready for it to go. And it’s their best album in years.
True North excels because it captures the band’s greatest essence and bottles it track after track. A great Bad Religion song is equal parts rapid-fire punk, soaring three-way harmonies and fast-forwarded guitar solos and the album packs these in droves, whether in the tense opening title track, the faster, choppier Robin Hood In Reverse or the spat laments ofNothing To Dismay. The bass is heavy, the assault of drums endlessly tripping you up and the punch of the harmonies still as rousing as it ever was. This is Bad Religion at their very best.
It is not, however, Bad Religion at their angriest. Yet True North champions the infallible spirit of a punk band that refuses to simmer down, even as they look older and the world looks younger. Fuck You's war cry is frank and unapologetic, if perhaps muted: "Sometimes it takes no thought at all/The easiest thing to do is say fuck you!" Graffin chants as the harmonies flow behind him, in a sort of revolutionary hallowed aura of agreement. It’s not so much an album of anger as it is one of undefeated indefatigability, still retaining a punk-like sense of standing up for itself without necessarily running around swinging fists.
Across the album there is a quiet intricacy to the arrangements, but they too often fall to the wayside to give way to sheer noise and tempo of guitar and drums. Hello Cruel World slows the pace for a sober and uncharacteristically emotional dirge: "Do you know you are killing me?/I don't mind/But I could easily reciprocate". That any impression left by the song is pummelled by the minute-long Vanity that follows after is neither here nor there, but perhaps the band don't wish for us to dote on their darker nights of the soul.
Having withstood the test of time longer than most, Bad Religion could have happily packed it in years ago with millions of sales to their name. With three of the band’s founding members present, this may well be the last we hear of them. Graffin remarked in 2011 that the band were to try "one more album and then all join the navy, do honest work". If this turns out to be the case, then there are worse swan songs to be put to record than True North. Whether the good ship Bad Religion continues to sail on or not, they have crafted a trademark-saturated album of technical expertise and craft, and blessed it with a fast-beating punk heart at its core. Long may they sail on.