Refused’s new album Freedom, their resurrection 17 years after The Shape Of Punk To Come and Refused Are Fucking Dead, isn’t as crazy as I expected. It isn’t as weird as I hoped it’d be. This is probably for the best. It sidesteps an alternate reality in which the history of their last album is repeated, with 3/4ths of the band’s current fanbase, since expanded about ten thousandfold, dismisses it as sellout garbage. I was ready to defend the hardcore band that launched post-hardcore by introducing synths and samples, once again as they launched post-post-hardcore or whatever crazy shit they’d need to whip up to be difficult. Refused never did anything the easy way.
I had read that opening track Elektra started as a “seven-minute long, super weird” song until producer Shellback re-cut it to a three-and-a-half minute version that sounded “more like Refused” than David Sandström’s original demo. I have a strong suspicion that Freedom would be loved harder, though by a smaller number of people, if it opened with the band’s original vision. I’d really like to hear it. For now, Elektra is nothing more or less than an unmistakable re-manifestation of Refused exactly as we last heard them on record. I have some mixed feelings about that (as I’ll explain in a bit), but I can’t deny that especially out of context, its screams out as one of the fiercest protest songs of this time, targeting the fruitlessness of war with just a handful of potent phrases under a title that points to the classic free-for-all of revenge that leaves everyone dead and nothing justified.
As Elektra would suggest, Freedom does not hold back on the sociopolitical commentary, and in fact its most impressive songs are its most critical. At face value, Dawkins Christ seems to bill itself as a skewering of Christianity you might expect from a bunch of radical lefties, but the album’s heaviest song actually goes after everyone, throwing Dawkins worship right into the roast of insecure sycophancy with all the rest of it, through some of the band’s most vicious lyrics to date: No absolution, no alibis. Just belief and doubt, and then we die. We furnish the void with our attempts at lives. I got Judas’ heart, Nietzsche’s soul, Dawkins’ cock in a God-shaped hole…
Another heavy one, a determined, driving anthem that feels kind of like a theme song for a final boss battle in an RPG at times, Destroy The Man is also a little deceptive. Here, “The Man” is the construct that we’ve created, rather than punk rock’s old simplistic scapegoat. To cherry-pick some key lines: Invented poetry, impaired it with fame… Oh, how we love the shackles when we control the chains… Worshipped ourselves and our own kind… Let’s destroy and start something new.
Without question, it’s Françafrique that delivers the most direct and overt message, attacking France’s parasitic ravaging of its former slave states in Africa, even after the dismantling of the French colonial empire. Released ahead of the album, this song was a big signaler for me that Freedom might bring some brave surprises, featuring some horns, a children’s choir singing exterminate the brutes, and backup singers assisting the refrain of murder murder murder murder murder murder, kill kill kill!
It seemed to be a new version of Refused that made sense to me: Still angry, still scathing, with new types of sounds, and the kind of pop sensibility that might come from an unexpected collaboration. The head-bopping guitar riff on Françafrique sounds more like Venice Beach than Umeå.
However, I was wrong; it’s not representative of Freedom. It’s not the album’s widest curveball, either. That award goes to War On The Palaces, an even poppier, upbeat rock song with bold horns and big choruses, that could pass completely undetected through customs as a song by Dennis Lyxzén’s other band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy. I love that band dearly, but after hundreds of listens to Freedom, it still feels like there’s a random T(I)NC song smack in the middle of a Refused album for no reason. There’s nothing wrong with the song at all, standing alone, but the album does flow a little more coherently if you skip the first song on side B.
There’s another reference that’s more subtly blended; One of the most biting lines of Old Friends / New War obliquely echoes a certain Noise Conspiracy single: When the cages shrink, I’ll be the weakest link on every fucking chain.
I’m not thrilled with Refused’s decision to employ Shellback, and not because of his association with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Pink, and Taylor Swift and such. Neither of the two songs he co-wrote seem weird or out of place at all. In spite of his questionable resumé, they sound like songs on The Shape Of Punk To Come. I mean, literally, they sound like specific songs on the band’s last album. Can a band rip themselves off? Whatever it’s called (self-homage? Masturbation?), Refused did it, and it’s the only really disappointing detail of Freedom for me personally. At least half of 366 is an unabashed rework of the 1998 album’s title track, with differences so subtle, I don’t think they’d be enough to dodge a copyright claim if it were another band’s song. The shuffling riff that runs through Elektra nods to New Noise so hard, the song’s refrain of nothing has changed sticks out like an extra entendre.
The other half of 366 though? Songs like Old Friends / New War, Dawkins Christ, Destroy The Man? These songs find Refused as vital as ever. Thought Is Blood demands mention as well, a song that didn’t jump out in the first few listens, with its awkwardly discordant opening and simple lyrics, but has since grown to a personal favorite. There’s a little blink, a fraction of a beat of silence in the chorus that gets me every time. There’s an odd bridge that seems to recycle Protest Song ’68 but there’s also a winding synth part that winds through the second half, one of the more fresh creative flourishes on the album.
Ultimately, Freedom is less progressive than The Shape Of Punk To Come, which is not a complaint, but it is a surprise that has inspired a lot of rock critic beard-scratching. Refused has repeatedly warned us not to tempt a defiant fate by getting comfortable or by placing expectations on them. You could ponder whether or not making an album so much like The Shape Of Punk To Come actually is what we least expected, and thus exactly as it should be, but that feels like Vizzini-level over-thinking.
I think that the band’s legacy of doing things the hard way is a matter of nature, and not of intent. In other words, they don’t go out of their way to do the opposite of what they “should,” despite there definitely being a mischievous side of the band thrilled to add Taylor Swift’s name to a press release to fuck with us. That’s extracurricular. Cutting past that, when it counts, you can always trust Refused to operate with no rules but their own. To scream out what inspires them, or not at all. It might be a matter of luck that they’ve happened to make an album that won’t take a decade to catch on, this time around. I can’t say they don’t deserve an easy win once in awhile.
Refused are not so fucking dead. 'Freedom' isn't as weird as we expected it to be, for better or worse. Doesn't hold back on the sociopolitical commentary by any means, and its most impressive songs are its most critical.