Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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All Ages
The Gray Race
Bad Religion are punk lifers. Since 1981 they've released two EPs and nine albums, all but Atlantic's 1994 Stranger Than Fiction and new The Gray Race on their DIY label Epitaph, eventual home of the Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX, ex-MC5 Wayne Kramer, and early L7. By the standards of punk purism, this is a varied roster--a lot more varied than Bad Religion, all but one of whose records have sounded, if not exactly alike, then remarkably similar. Their style is simultaneously distinctive and generic. The slashing chords are standard hardcore, the hard tempos slightly less frenetic than the mosh-pit ideal. The hooks and harmonies common to all punk bands with a life are diligently subsumed in the rush. And although the melodies are never instant and only rarely catchy, Greg Graffin's hoarse, clear exhortations make them sound classic rather than hackneyed. Rising and falling like a muezzin's wail, his vocal attack provides the band's undeviating musical signature. On Epitaph's All Ages best-of, 1981's "We're Only Gonna Die," cut when Graffin was 16, sounds like a coda to 1990's "Modern Man" that for some reason was recorded on a beat-up four-track.

Whether you find this consistency inspirational or tedious--or merely, like me, aesthetically engaging--it shouldn't mislead you into dismissing these lifers as hacks or journeymen, because they're way too smart. One of the very few rock musicians ever to pursue a Ph.D., Graffin is a student of evolutionary biology, which lends his jeremiads about the end of the world an authority unapproached in the subgenre that formalized the apocalyptic tantrum. Guitarist Brett Gurewitz, who was reading Spinoza when he cofounded the band at 15, has lately exercised his brain power making the Offspring's Smash one of the very few indie-rock albums ever to soar into the empyrean realms of surplus value that lure from beyond mere gold. That the best he's done with Bad Religion is 300,000 rather than five million is a disparity bemoaned by admirers of these steadfast keepers of punk's eternal flame. Not as steadfast as in legend, actually: the band broke up for several years in delayed reaction to Graffin's slowed tempos and scandalous synthesizer on 1983's viciously maligned Into the Unknown--which Gurewitz, who in 1994 split to run Epitaph full time, declines to keep in print. But either way the sales limit is in keeping with Bad Religion's achievement--they endured for the same reason they'll never be huge.

Graffin and Gurewitz are organic intellectuals, lyricists with an unmistakable commitment not just to their subcultural mission, a hardcore hallmark, but to developing and verbalizing ideas. Josh nervously about Graffin's "thesaurus-rock" if you want, but recognize that his polysyllabic proclivities manifest a disinclination to condescend. When "Modern Man" talks "carbon-based wastage" and "eternal supply" you get the idea he knows what he's yelling about, and the stalwart passion with which both writers bang home their themes of impoverished ideology, autonomous analysis, and the impending death of the earth has earned them the modestly profitable loyalty of thoughtful punks everywhere. But although there may be 400,000 of those, there ain't five million; the personal inadequacies Green Day and the Offspring thrash around in are a far more universal draw. It's great to set yourself the task of pointing confused young fans in the general direction of the end of the tunnel because you know you don't have what it takes to lead them out--or to get out yourself. But unless you can provide at least the hope of leadership, your brains and principles will most likely put off a mass following. And the inability to ease the struggle with laughter may well circumscribe your natural constituency as well--awash in bitter irony, Bad Religion wouldn't know a joke if God cracked it herself.

Picking peaks out of a catalogue as level as the Isley Brothers', All Ages is definitely where to start upping their constituency that final 100,000. It's not love at first listen--musically, they're subtler and less ingratiating than that. Gurewitz, who is slightly (I said slightly) more reporterial and concrete, wrote most of the small store of wonderful as opposed to excellent songs--the not quite ironic opening credo "I Want to Conquer the World" and the not quite self-excluding putdown "21st Century Digital Boy" (as well as "Generator," "Flat Earth Society," "Walk Away") have an imagination and anthemic reach Graffin gets near only on "Modern Man" and "The Answer" (which he doesn't have, natch). But these are marginal differentiations, and as on the individual albums only more so, the 22-songs-in-50-minutes gather compelling force, with Graffin's material equally essential to the gestalt you come away humming with.

As for The Gray Race, it's a hell of a record for guys who just lost 52 per cent of their songwriting, proof that Graffin's voice and vision define the band. Four of his new titles, not including any of the four cocomposed by Gurewitz's guitar replacement Brian Baker, would fit right onto All Ages, and two of those--the proudly subcultural "Punk Rock Song" and the frightening overpopulation prophecy "Ten in Twenty Ten"--could be anthems. The rest power the sound and explore the themes, albeit without quite the hardcore drive of 1989's No Control or songful complexity of 1994's Stranger Than Fiction. A band so consistent transcends crass chronology, and if All Ages turns you on, start with those. But as with all Bad Religion, if The Gray Race is what's in the bin, it'll be good enough.

Spin, Mar. 1996