Artist: Propagandhi

Album: Failed States

Propagandhi are a good band. Given my tastes, I doubt I’d keep buying each new album of theirs if I didn’t care about their lyrics, but maybe; they’re a good band. Starting off with a 1993 album as a primitivist hardcore punk group who couldn’t sustain songs for two minutes and rarely propagandhi_clowntried, they’ve learned structure, drama, pacing, and many chords they didn’t begin with. Chris Hannah’s singing is still punk-shouty, melodic by implication (and not always that) rather than composition, and he articulates, but they’re essentially a metal band now. A more angular version of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, perhaps, or then again a more militant version of Nothingface-era Voivod. They still do a few punk sprints, but as fun changes of pace, like System of a Down strewing Jet Pilot and Bounce amid songs proving they know better. Most of the songs on Failed States start right before the words do, and stop when the words run out, but there’s changes of riffs, changes of tempo, spectacular drum fills, even some guitar solos. On previous Propagandhi albums there was a distracting tendency for those musical events to interrupt Hannah in the middle of a thought, but on Failed States they’ve finally allied the music with the words.

Because Propagandhi are a good band, I can happily exercise or fold laundry to this album — but that came after, at least twice, reading along to it. Their lyricist — I’m guessing that’s founding member Chris Hannah, but I’ve never managed to find out for sure — is an excellent, thoughtful, personal, periodically goofy writer who devotes his albums to his efforts to figure out the world, his place in it, and how to fix it. I know it’s cool to roll your eyes at “how to fix it”, but seriously: don’t you think it could use some repairs? Do you trust the corporate executives and politicians to do it for you? If not, it’s pretty much up to the unqualified rest of us, and part of the greatness of Propagandhi is that they know they’re unqualified. “29 years in human history: the total duration of time without war. What the fuck am I acting so surprised for? If I had a dime for every single idiotic time I felt like strangling some goof on the street, I could afford a business seat on the fucking Soyuz 13. Sandwiched straight between Tom Hanks and Lance Bass, already fighting, nowhere near space. Each of us a failed state in stark relief against the background of the perfect world we seek”. You can’t dis Propagandhi‘s idealism harder than they do on the title track, so why bother? Neither they nor you nor I will live perfectly, but that’s a crappy excuse for not trying.

Some songs on Failed States are dedicated to heroes. Cognitive Suicide salutes two world-class female athletes who suffered — in lesbian/LGBT activist Eudy Simelane’s case, was beaten to death — for defying repressive gender roles. Rattan Cane supports Iranian punk-rockers. Unscripted Moment is basically a love song to two close friends.

Some are endearingly personal. Devil’s Creek is fond but jarringly honest nostalgia for a childhood place he misses: “Squatting in the cool of the rotting of the reeds, enveloping. Never understood the other kids; the adults even less. So I hung out by myself in a backroad drainage ditch. I called it Devil’s Creek so it wouldn’t seem so sad. When you can’t have what you want, you learn to want what you have”. More upbeat, Things I Like is a catalog of just that, from “dark planetariums” to “a rowdy fuckin’ Pride parade” to “the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love” to — a more common form of fun than one might expect — “speculative fiction: dark narratives of the future that looms”. Duplicate Keys Icaro is an outsider science-geek’s consideration of the offered peace of mind from LSD and magic mushrooms: “Cryptic ring structures bind to receptors” and “Our confirmation biases leverage everything we perceive”, but still, mulling it over, tempted by others’ “haunting certainty that the unifying principle of the universe is love”.

Regardless of which, some songs on Failed States are dedicated to statements of the challenges. “No-fly list. No-drive list. No-walk list. No-talk list. No muckraking journalist left to take stock of the wholesale omission of outside perspectives. How does it make you feel to know that you voted for this?… We frantically click our heels, already home”. And while Propagandhi have by no means given up on politics — active for Amnesty International, the Rainforest Action Network, Sweatshop Watch, local Winnipeg initiatives, and a variety of vegan/ animal rights causes — they seem proudest asserting lifestyle as activism. You might mock this too, and if so I need to disagree on several grounds. (1) There is almost no chance that your political vote will ever do anything (though it’s worth casting), but voting by dollars always makes its small difference in the capitalist system: either for your beliefs, or against them. (2) If your behavior and dollars don’t fit your opinions, what’s the point of having opinions? Don’t say “entertainment”; for that, sex and video games and sports are way better.

And (3), one of those better entertainments can be, in fact, living your beliefs. Eco-friendly, Hannah “ride[s] a single speed, my toque and mitts protect me from the freeze… I’m ripping through a cloud of exhaust. A fucking conniption, in their cages on wheels they fucking rot. I might be trapped in a world going backwards, but nothing’s in vain: right now I’m just happy to clog up your lane”. Those of us who worry at injustice, who make our tiny attempts to live out a better world: we often began as lonely kids, but we get happier as we get older, articulate better, listen better, find others who see sense and nonsense in the same places we do. We enjoy trying new ideas, swapping strategies. And as we hope to improve things, we figure it will also benefit the jackasses who pollute all they want, cheat on their taxes, yell at the unemployed to “Get a job!” (but don’t offer them one), and accuse us of rooting for tragedy to further our agenda. A rising tide lifts even the smokiest, leakiest, most carelessly piloted of motorboats. Or it should. But, y’know, we’ll get over it if it doesn’t.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!