Justify Your Shitty Taste – Refused’s “Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, devoted Deciblogger Shawn Macomber says woo for Refused’s Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.
Privy only to the mythology nurtured by Refused and partisans of the preening husk the band sadly transmogrified into during its twilight days, one would probably conclude Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent is a record teeming with rehashed Judge riffs dressed up in mile-wide JNCO jeans, the uninspired kindling from whence the glorious fires of The Shape of Punk to Come flared a few years later.

Nothing could be further from the truth, friends, and so I find myself stepping up onto the JYST soapbox this morning not only to argue Songs is not some towheaded retard who led the punk rock golden calf into the village before heading off to tend the rabbits, but to unequivocally declaim it the superior record.

Indeed, in much the same way I think the world would be an infinitely more intriguing place had the musical template of 1990s modern rock been set by Pony Express Record rather than O.K. Computer I truly believe the hardcore punk of the last 15 years would have been better served were Songs considered the seminal Refused record.

Yes, ma’am. That’s right: I’ve got a bone to pick with The Shape of Punk to Come, and a few to break.

First, some real talk: The “Refused party programme” conceit is pretty motherfucking grating to anyone who jiggled his head through a Nation of Ulysses phase. I suppose I’m lucky in that I didn’t have a popular band with an international record deal to document mine, but seriously, Refused was utterly shameless in carrying out a 12-point program to destroy its legacy, right down to the liner note manifesto guitarist Kristofer Steen aptly dismissed last year in the incomparable Nick Green’s stellar Shape Hall of Fame cover story as “all that substance-free revolutionary jargon.”

If this is the shape of punk to come, then Ian Svenonius is mayor of Hot Chocolate City and I’m the aspirin kid who told on another kid and is now a dead kid, alright?

Christ, on the day Dennis Lyxzen debuted the (International) Noise Conspiracy Svenonius probably developed a hernia from having a blustery young Swede constantly swinging off his dick. When Svenonius recently hosted a Miami-Nassau “Bruise Cruise”—see Jonathan Fischer’s awesome “A Supposedly Punk Rock Thing I’ll Never Do Again”—my first thought was, “How long until Lyxzen announces a Scandinavian version?” (Shape does, after all, include the track “Summer Holidays vs. Punk Routine.”) And I’ll purchase a cabin, too, if Lyxzen promises to get up with the poolside jam band and belt out a cover of “Sunflower Princess” off Everlasting for the dyed black bangs old school stalwarts in the conga line.

Who knows, maybe the liberation frequency is stronger at sea.

And how’s this for magnanimity? I’ll concede at the outset that Songs does not have a penultimate track to compete with Shape’s “New Noise” centerpiece.

Then again, were you to go back in time and snip “New Noise” from the Shape sequence, I haven’t the slightest doubt whatsoever that 80 percent of that record’s acclaim would suffocate in the crib. It was not shocking to learn from Green’s Hall of Fame piece that “New Noise” was written separately from the rest of Shape—it is a total outlier; its excellence stands out like a sore thumb. (From each song according to its ability, to each according to its need, I suppose.)

Set aside the admittedly peerless “New Noise” and what’s left? A handful of solid riffs mired in a swamp of ostentatious Look at how we’ve evolved! Hardcore? Pshaw! showboating, which is to say the great moments on Shape are far outnumbered by the those during which one wishes the producer had handed these guys a bottle of lotion and a box of tissues, and sent them to the bathroom with strict orders to get it out of their system before laying a hand on their (musical) instruments again.

Songs, on the other hand, contra its ill-deserved reputation, is a tight, nuanced, smart, rhythmically complex record, an effort surefooted enough that doesn’t need to totter around on the crutches of ambiguity and cartoonish braggadocio to keep it balanced.

For all their grousing about fellow ’90s hardcore bands not meeting their intellectual/artistic standards—“Everything was sort of muscular and dumb,” Kristoffer Steen tells Green of the Songs years. “It wasn’t a very inspiring environment”—“Rather Be Dead” tries its damndest to out-“Firestorm” Earth Crisis. It is the perfect opening salvo—blunt and loaded for bear, Lyxzen laying out all the indignities he refuses to countenance before closing out the track screaming, “But I’d rather be alive…”

The track sets the tone, but really only hints at what is to come. The seething “Coup d’Etat” perfectly weds an anthemic rock riff to Dischord noise blare—sounding, strangely, like a refined version of the amalgamation several Shape tracks attempt and fail. “Hook, Line and Sinker” coils around serpentine riff, constricting tightest just before it strikes. “Worthless Is the Freedom Bought” is all frenetic hammering and big chords. “This Trust Will Kill Again” features one of the best build-up-and-explode intros, hands down. “Beauty” is a superlative old-school hardcore jam. “Return to the Closet” smolders and bursts with soft-loud dynamics to rival the Pixies on methamphetamine.

If Songs has a leitmotif, it is lex parsimoniae—in this case, the idea that the fewer assumptions loaded onto a moral question, the more likely the chance of hitting upon the sort of truth we often allow to be obscured because (too) many of us prefer not to face the implications. If you want to see what’s outside your window, in other words, work up the gumption to open the curtains.

Whether dissecting homophobia (“Our culture acquires love design / Left with nothing but ourselves and contempt for what we’re not supposed to be, not supposed to feel, not supposed to see / I will embrace you”), the meat industrial complex (“Turn off, hail to the deafening… With blood in my eyes I won’t see the light shine”), the average Western citizen’s complicity in their nation’s misdeeds (“Swallow every word said to free you from blame”), or the momentum of stasis (“We breed upon culture sickness and we made this rule our own / Silently sedated / Our minds fly out the window”), on Songs Lyxzen managed to incisively skewer and elucidate without resorting to faux be-boppery or all the overwrought “baby”s and “yeah yeah yeah”s or cliché (“jump on the soul train”) or (not) bon mots like—sigh—“I took the first bus out of Coca-Cola city ‘cause it made me feel all nauseous and shitty” festooning the bloated Shape.

“By the time [Shape] came out,” Lyxzen told Green, “I was full-on into class war revolution and the idea of getting up onstage and using music as a political vehicle to overthrow capitalism.”

Lord! I guess by these standards if Earth Crisis wanted to get serious about veganism they’d start incorporating hoedown elements on their next record and Karl Buechner would record a scat version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Come to think of it, I personally never felt Youth of Today were serious about straight-edge until they released those satirical dub B-sides of old Pogues drinking songs.

Seriously, this is borderline delusional stuff coming from a guy whose post-Songs lyrics—with the exception of his sneering sonnets on the excellent Lost Patrol Band records—have read as if they were ghostwritten by a high school sophomore who just finished skimming A People’s History of the United States for arguments against taking the summer job Daddy lined up for him.

Around the release of Songs, Victory sold a Refused T-shirt decorated with the typical black and white live hardcore shot on the back over the words “INSERT COOL HARDCORE QUOTE HERE,” presumably a dig at the superficiality of hardcore posturing. Shape saw the band was the butt of its own joke.

Bombast and grandiloquence are not deal-breakers for me—see my recent defense of Chinese Democracy—and no one expected the starry-eyed “Pump the Breaks”-era innocents to stick around forever…

…but, c’mon, take a gander at the (in)famous “Refused Are Fucking Dead” press release, which finds the band fully embodying the martyr complex and self-absorbed navel-gazing it mocked so ferociously on Songs “Crusader of Hopelessness”:

When every show played just becomes another brick in the wall between people, between “fans” and “stars,” when we instead of getting communication and interaction are being forced to become nothing but consumers and producers. When people are being praised as geniuses and idols just because they play music or write books or something equally boring and “cultural,” when the widespread belief that their creation is more important than that people take part in everyday life… What does that say about the rest of us and what does it say about the system that we have? When we continue to uphold the bourgeoisie myth of self realization by saying that anyone can make it, just as long as they work hard, or pick up a guitar, we uphold the dream of good vs. bad jobs (rockstar = good, factory worker = bad) thus we also uphold the class system and the justification of it.

Yet did Lyxzen leave behind music for after his Refused stint for the halcyon proletarianism of the factory floor? No sir, he rolled right into another band, got up on a stage to play new songs, and adopted an even goofier public persona.

Or, as he apparently prefers it, he strived to uphold the class system.

The choice Lyxzen sets up between “everyday life” and “the myth of self-realization” is, regardless, a false dilemma. David Mamet once compared writing to bricklaying—you place one brick on top of the other, do the work, check your angles, add the next brick. The micro-level process helps you hone a craft rather than nurture a tortured artist pomposity. This is exactly the sort of yeoman attitude Refuse brought to Songs—and then inexplicably traded in for self-fluffing hipster horseshit on the follow-up.

Somebody is going to have to tell me what is more petit-bourgeoisie than that.

Look, I realize the vast majority of readers will likely never be sold on this argument. And that is–apparently!–precisely why it is correct.

We dance to all the wrong songs


Track listing

1. “Rather Be Dead”
2. “Coup D’État”
3. “Hook, Line and Sinker”
4. “Return to the Closet”
5. “Life Support Addiction”
6. “It’s Not O.K…”
7. “Crusader of Hopelessness”
8. “Worthless Is the Freedom Bought…”
9. “This Trust Will Kill Again”
10. “Beauty”
11. “Last Minute Pointer”
12. “The Slayer”