There doesn’t seem to be much in music that slots together with the ease of a Bad Religion album in 2019 called Age Of Unreason. In a career that’s spanned nearly forty years and seventeen albums, this isn’t a band who’ve shied away from flexing their socio-political muscles whenever possible, and for a band with tracks like American Jesus and 21st Century (Digital Boy) that rank among their biggest, there’s been some clear response to it. And so, with the world continuing to be engulfed by flames more and more each day, what better time for Bad Religion to resurface and take society’s ills to task once more? Granted, there’s never the guarantee that it’ll all run smoothly; for everything that has formed their central sphere of influence here from the growing prominence of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the US national anthem, describing this as an “album’s worth of ‘Fuck Trump’ songs” drifts towards reductive tedium that Bad Religion are head and shoulders above. It’s true that the singles preceding Age Of Unreason’s release have definitely tilted towards a band sounding a lot more galvanised than in recent memory, but the possibility of stumbling, especially at this late stage in their career, is still very present.
But really, that’s a deeper amount of thought than this album probably needs, or indeed deserves. Basically, if you’ve heard any recent Bad Religion album, or even any recent album at all from an older punk band who are still trucking along, you know what Age Of Unreason sounds like without having to hear even a single note. Granted, a case like this is hardly anything new, but considering the amount of reverence that Bad Religion have in punk in general, the fact that the end product feels so average and falls in line with everything else is hugely disappointing, and when there’s barely even a hint of flair to elevate it above that middling benchmark, it’s worth wondering what Age Of Unreason was even trying to do in the first place.
And honestly, it’s hard to know what more to even say, especially when Bad Religion leave the window of opportunity to make any original or thoughtful points open by such a narrow amount. Musically, this is roughly about as bog-standard as ‘new music from old punks’ comes, trying to capture the fire of the old days in speed and short song lengths, but lacking a truly cogent way of tying them together to get some sort of payoff from them. Greg Graffin can definitely be a good vocalist with his more overtly melodic style that occasionally branches out into some soulful touches, but it’s easy to see that he’s finding it difficult to keep up, and when the creaks can so clearly be heard on the likes of the title track (not to mention the frankly pitiful attempt at howls on Big Black Dog), it’s clear to see that this is a band trying to feign an intensity that they once had with little in the way in success. It says a lot when chunkier, more mid-paced material ends up having a lot more character, and even if Lose Your Head and Candidate are hardly masterstrokes within this band’s catalogue, they at least feel more in-keeping with where they are at this stage in their career. But otherwise, these could roughly be the exact same song templates as each other with a minimal coat of paint to set them apart, such is the abundance of bounding drums paired with guitars that either sound considerably quieter or lack a significant amount of body, while Graffin is roughly about six feet ahead of everything else. It doesn’t feel as though all that much time has gone into crafting great songs here, but archetypes of punk that do incredibly little but claw together the most run-of-the-mill progressions and call it a day.
But all of that in itself isn’t the main issue; punk can frequently get away with sound rudimentary (hell, Bad Religion have done it themselves in the past) if there’s a strong lyrical strain to boon it up, or at least enough detail to make an album seem worthwhile. And yet, that’s where every trepidation surrounding Age Of Unreason’s place within the Bad Religion canon comes true, as the general conceit of an idea remains present but rarely is anything concrete done with it. On the most basic level, the criticism of Trump and the US political climate is absolutely fine, but when it’s been rinsed as much as it has lately, there needs to be something to make these particular contributions to the discussion feel necessary, and that’s in disappointingly short supply. There’s a few lyrical flourishes in End Of History and Old Regime that hint towards verging on more detail or recognisable, anecdotal sources, but that swiftly curtails back to basic, flavourless ‘state of the nation’ addresses that just feel so tired at this point. Compared to an album like Sick Of It All’s Wake The Sleeping Dragon!, which focused on a lot of the same themes but gave them the teeth and third dimension to have the desired impact, Bad Religion feel as though they’re spinning their wheels and cycling through a very rote, staid point in the hope that something sticks.
And unfortunately, that doesn’t end up happening. There’s nothing to gravitate towards on this album, and as a result Age Of Unreason feels like a rushed effort to capitalise on waves of unrest rather than a thoughtful critique that Bad Religion are more than capable of delivering. It’s not without merit, at least in spots, but compared to their classic work that continues to hold up even today, this is barely even in the same field of quality, let alone the same ballpark. And sure, diehards and completionists will undoubtedly find something to like here, but when Bad Religion want to continue to have a powerful voice in the modern day, and this is all they can muster, they’re not doing themselves any favours.
For fans of: Pennywise, Anti-Flag, NOFX
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Age Of Unreason’ by Bad Religion is released on 3rd May on Epitaph Records.