What’s most disappointing is that there was reason to get one’s hopes up over a new Refused album.
Let’s be open to the idea that, for all of their experimentalism, Refused has never been anything other than a hardcore band. Sure, The Shape of Punk to Come famously incorporated elements of electronic music into their songs, but it’s still a hardcore album through and through. Refused never strayed far from what they knew they could do well, and this instinct arguably served them well over the years. Taking that into consideration, Freedom, the band’s first album since 1998, becomes all the more confusing. It’s an album by a hardcore band that is clearly bored with playing hardcore, but hasn’t quite figured out what to do instead.
Given the expectations that come with a new Refused record, the band admirably plays down those expectations on Freedom. The album is a decidedly more low-key affair that in some ways recalls the fitful bursts of energy of the band’s earlier work more than the grandiosity of The Shape of Punk to Come. Freedom has a looser, livelier feel, and it is comforting to hear that the band hasn’t become complacent since returning from hiatus. Front man Dennis Lyxzén can still scream with the best of them, and the years off have been surprisingly kind to his singing voice. I guess it helps when you aren’t bellowing the chorus of “Liberation Frequency” every night. On paper, Freedom should work, even if it’s not a masterpiece. So why does it all go wrong?
For one thing, Refused tries to do too much. Rather than elaborating and expanding on one or two big ideas over the course of an album, the band tries something different on seemingly every song. There’s the straight hardcore of “Elektra,” the hammered funk of “Françafrique,” and the more polished, anthemic rock of “War on the Palaces,” just to name a few versions of Refused that pop up on the album. It makes for a confounding listen, and gives off the impression that Refused may not know what kind of band they want to be now that they’re a band again. Ironically, they work best on moments like “Elektra,” where their energy and knowledge of hardcore’s tropes works to their benefit. When they move away from this style, it falls flat in ways that range from unimpressive (“366”) to embarrassing (the aforementioned “Palaces,” which sounds like nothing less than a Hold Steady demo). Perhaps the adventurousness for which Refused was so lauded in the ‘90s has done them a disservice in middle age.
What’s most disappointing is that there was reason to get one’s hopes up over a new Refused album. Whatever cynical thoughts one may have had about a defiantly anti-commercial band cashing in and getting back together, a Refused return seems apt given the state of things in the world today. Unfortunately, it seems that Refused simply have too much to say on Freedom, and they have no clue just how to say it.