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The Radio Dept.: synth pop subversives

| Monday, November 14, 2016

radiodept_WEBLAUREN WELDON | The Observer

On the night of Nov. 4, all manner of standard-issue demagogues roam the halls of Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. Their lively banter reflects the spirit of gratuitous self-congratulation wafting through the air. This is not a time to debate divisive issues. It’s a time to celebrate.

The event — dubbed the European Freedom Awards — recognizes Europe’s loudest radicals for their commitment to political disruption. It’s an opportunity for bombastic political outsiders from around the continent to indulge their more controversial proclivities among agreeable folk. The “alternative Nobel Prize ceremony,” as The Local labeled it, offers a safe space for the right-wing incendiaries to collectively pat themselves on the back.

The European Freedom Awards, and the controversial organizations behind it, represent a disconcerting shift in the European political mentality. The growing controversy surrounding immigration policy, international economic cooperatives and nationalist sentiment has primed the political arena for boisterous, right-winged political organizations. These groups advocate aggressive foreign policy, preach economic isolation and convey racist undercurrents. Even Sweden, a haven of Nordic progressivism, faces this threat in the form of the Sweden Democrats — the neo-fascist party responsible for the Freedom Awards.

The Radio Dept.’s fourth studio album “Running Out of Love” revolves around this bleak facet of European politics.

As a writer, the band’s creative leader Johan Duncanson makes no attempt to conceal his ideological leanings. The album’s lyrics read like a democratic socialist’s manifesto.

On “We Got Game,” Duncanson fires shots at right-wing economics. “It’s not a game if you can’t win,” he protests. “If we want it we’ll have to take it from the overfed.” Later in the song, Duncanson transparently belittles neo-fascist parties as a “bunch of racist goons / the kind of guys you would not like to spoon.” To Duncanson, the rise of fringe groups presents a real fiscal danger for the common citizen. When radical policy reduces immigration and stifles tax revenue, he fears, income inequality and social unrest will grow.

“Occupied” sees the progressive lyricist call out conservative policy makers for insincerity, specifically pointing to their insidious tendency to “be one thing or another / when, in fact, it’s nothing but an act.” The radical agenda and persuasive facade, Duncanson claims, makes prisoners of unwilling citizens. The political lies have “taken [the people] hostage with no war in sight / robbed of youth and freedom.”

Duncanson also expresses his disgust with the proliferation of violence at the hands of right-wing policy. From his simple denunciation of arms dealing on “Swedish Guns” to his portrait of hopelessness on “Committed to the Cause,” the songwriter flashes a poetic warning against the enduring consequences of toxic thinking. In an interview with The Atlantic, Duncanson stressed his concern that the marriage of far-right policies and weapons production leads to violence in the developing world, and lamented that “there were a lot of people defending it.”

Musically, Duncanson further develops his potent social message by clashing mesmerizing synth pop with post-punk morbidity.

The album’s interwoven keyboard lines and infectious hooks draw listeners into a sleepy hypnosis. The opening track “Sloboda Narodu” administers its synth swells with impeccable timing — lifting the listener up without sacrificing auditory suspense. “Swedish Guns” and “We Got Game” wield choppy chord rhythms to convey an acute sense of excitement and tension. “Teach Me to Forget” mimics a minimalist club track with its pulsing bass and contagious tempo, entrancing the listener in a web of tones.

These hooks and motifs, when taken together, act as dream-like musical facade. They’re the sonic equivalent of Sweden’s progressive reputation — masking the abundance of turmoil and discontent bubbling just beneath the surface. A careful listener can pick up on Duncanson’s auditory cues — his use of dissonance and rhythmic quirks — to piece together a more complete picture of his soundscape, but to do so requires a meticulous attention to detail. The structure of his work mirrors the chaos of politics, forcing the listener to explore its depths and embrace its conflicts. The intricate nuances and post punk edge of Duncanson’s electronic arrangements may bring to mind New Order and Depeche Mode’s epic singles, but the music’s political idiosyncrasies are unique to The Radio Dept.

With his latest effort at the helm of The Radio Dept., Duncanson swings for the fences. “Running Out of Love” is a blunt display of civic anger made on behalf of a silent and repressed European majority — a courageous move for a pop album in the age of easy listening. While his art will probably never reach the hotel demagogues or the Sweden Democrats, it may very well sway the nation’s youthful masses.

Artist: The Radio Dept.

Album: “Running Out of Love”

Label: Labrador Records

Tracks: “Sloboda Narodu,” “We Got Game,” “Occupied”

If you like: Beach House, Wild Nothing, New Order

Shamrocks: 4/5

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About Mike Donovan

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