Protest music doesn’t need to pummel eardrums. Sure, it more often than not goes for the throat with gusto, but listen closely to the latest from The Radio Dept. — Running Out of Love, the Swedish dream pop outfit’s first record in six years — and you’ll hear the push for change even in the sweetest of moments. Sure, Johan Duncanson and Martin Larsson fill their album with bouncy African rhythms, plinking synths, and some of the sleepiest vocal melodies you’ll find this side of The Postal Service, but they use those soft tools to voice their discontent with oppressors, racists, fascists, and the state of their homeland.
For those unfamiliar with the current political nature of Sweden — and, with the unfortunate state of discourse and party politics around the world, I don’t blame you, as there’s enough to worry about whatever your nation of origin — NPR offers a quick primer: “A conservative movement is picking up speed in the form of the counterintuitively named Sweden Democrats … Swedish Prime Minster Stefan Löfven, a Social Democrat, called the nationalist group ‘a Nazi party, a racist party.'” Suffice it to say, conflict is on the mind of the average Swede, and The Radio Dept. put that right on the cover, the gun far closer to the fore than the soldier’s face, which is only seen reflected through a mirror and then only half of it. And, as if to hit the nail on the head another few times, the recording of the record was shrouded by a dispute with label Labrador.
Opener “Sloboda Narodu” wastes no time either in setting its pastel palette or its declarative lyrics. A Graceland-y union of hand drums, wriggling guitar, and ’80s synths opens like a burst of sunrise, though the light isn’t uncovering a beautiful new day — it’s the shine of hope for something yet to arrive. “Don’t ask for patience/ Cause we just don’t have the time/ Freedom now,” Duncanson sings, before a sample of the song’s title twitches into place. The phrase translates to something akin to “power to the people” and were the last words of Yugoslavian dissident Stjepan Filipović, prior to his hanging by Fascists during WWII.
“Committed to the Cause” rides a limber bass line, the post-rock and trip-hop touches working perfectly with Duncanson’s breathy voice. “‘Cause when our pain’s over/ It’s someone else’s turn/ No point in staying sober/ If we’re gonna burn,” he sings, one of the more powerful lines on the album. The oppression suddenly becomes that much more terrifying when you realize it keeps happening and you could be a part of it next, especially when paired with the down-turned vocal hook and dead-eyed funk.
Elsewhere, The Radio Dept. use “Swedish Guns” to criticize their country’s burgeoning arms industry; “Occupied” searches for justice for the greedy and abusers (completed with a sample of the Twin Peaks soundtrack synths), and “Can’t Be Guilty” mocks the supposed innocence of the ambivalent and uninvolved (“You could close your eyes and go to sleep with me/ As long as we do we can’t be guilty”). The synths aren’t always so warm, though, and the messages don’t always echo quite so gracefully. “We Got Game” struggles with cheesy synth and drum machine, their call to “make some noise” coming off a little ironic considering the airy delivery — and calling racist goons “the kind of guys you would not like to spoon” might be a good eyebrow-raiser but won’t incite any riots.
The criticisms aren’t always subtle or unique, but they fit together well. There’s a breezy quality to the record, one that at best makes a powerful counterpoint to the chaos and pain Duncanson and Larsson rebel against and at worst comes off as sleepy. That comes in large part to the over-consistency of the vocal delivery, too often buried in the mix and layered in reverb for their hushed style. But anything else and this wouldn’t be protest music done as The Radio Dept. Running Out of Love is absolutely true to the duo’s style and their assessment of today’s Sweden.
Essential Tracks: “Sloboda Narodu”, “Committed to the Cause”