Imagine you’re 14 in 1997 and you’ve found a sort of home in punk rock. It takes about a year for the horrible truth to set in: The same spirit that drew you into this subculture is the spirit that renders it undone. Indeed, if punk rock is an affront to the status quo, a rejection of homogeny, how then can it become a subculture at all? A subculture with its own fashion, its own rules, its own homogeny.
Imagine now that some punk band in Sweden has grappled with this same contradiction long before you, and in response, have readied an album called, The Shape of Punk to Come. You discover this album in 1998, and it does nothing short of blowing your paradigm for music, art, and punk rock itself wide open. The trajectory of your own art is forever altered.
(This is obviously my story.)
Imagine then, my abounding joy to have Refused back, 17 years after disbanding. How could they—so many wondered—possibly follow an album whose legacy sprawls out over nearly two decades of bands like mine following in their influential wake?
They follow it by making an even better record.
Better because it is propelled by the same subversive spirit that propelled its predecessor. Better because it not only ignores fan expectations, it defies them. Better because it dashes the hopes of selfish admirers who would have them enslaved to their legacy, condemned to stagnate in nostalgia or else repeat something they said 17 years ago.
Better because it’s better. As in, really, really good. From the album’s fiery opening all the way to its brooding conclusion, it exudes fearlessness.
Fear, after all, is what shackles and silences artists. Fear of an audience’s reaction: Will they approve? Will they like it? Would they like something else better? Will they understand? Will they follow?
These shivers of cowardice power the sad production line of unoriginal and disingenuous creative ennui that populates the lion’s share of today’s musical landscape. Sure, it carries choruses, it sells records, and then it hardens on the wall of a million chewed bubble wads to dry there before it.
As Refused themselves prophetically exclaimed back in 1998:
“How can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice?”