Refused- The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)
Artists- Dennis Lyxzén, José, David Sandström, Ulf Nyberg
“To dress well, as clothing and fashion, are the only things which we — the kids — being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over.” - Ian Svenonius, early Nation of Ulysses fanzine, 1992
"The problem with rock n’roll is that at some point in the 1970s, it became very obsessed with authenticity." - Ian Svenonius, in conversation with Calvin Johnson, 2009
Punk, more or less, revolves around posturing. To have been called a punk originally meant that someone was interpreting your stance, clothes, dress, whatever, as beyond the pale; you were revolting, in both senses of the word, simply by appearing. Punk, as such, is in permanent revolution. As soon as a behaviour becomes passe- bland, safe, no longer interpellating the observer into viewing the subject as unacceptable, as ‘punk’- then it becomes useless in the progressive sense (but of course, instantly useful in the commercial).
As such, punk has a double identity. It exists as an idea — a worldview — and as a set of signifiers. As such, there are bands who self-consciously write Green Day or Jawbreaker songs, or who tear themselves apart trying to rip it up and start again. Like, Black Flag can have a million different vocalists and still be Black Flag; what matters is how they articulate, not what they sound like. It’s not to the content of Damaged, but the integrity, the spirit, which is why I don’t even remember what the Black Flag album that came out this year is called. What punk-as-idea requires is the opposite of decay, a way to never appear as safe, simple or digestible to those it is constructed to oppose. A filthy squat is full of life, insect or otherwise, after all.
So, punk also generates instant nostalgia ("sadness without an object"), since it constantly moves forward. What is longed for is an integrity that is no longer extant in anything but a document from a time when it seemingly abounded. The force of it is such that those who strive after the intangible ideals are in search not of a particular sound qua sound, but a conscious, constant deconstruction. However, this can only be reified properly in the form of an album, the canonical punk iteration of a ‘statement’— despite the genre’s origins, the power of detournement has not had lasting staying power. To be punk is to be always arriving, never arriving, like the bodies in a moshpit, but the stops and landmarks that chart the way are concrete experiences; albums. So, punk, the music that was to be a middle finger, has to keep forming and reforming more complicated gestures of the same. Johnny Rotten has been holding his up since 1977, but hasn’t made a new move since Metal Box, for example. As such, it’s a genre that isn’t kind on followers. Each ‘masterpiece’ signifies not the start of a road, but the end of one; none can come this way again. The only way after London Calling was Sandinista, after all. And coming to the end of the line is often the case for the people who produce these masterpieces, too.
Which brings us neatly to the cover of The Shape of Punk to Come, maybe the most self-conscious, self-reflexive punk record of them all. Making it spelled the end for Refused, but it was the kind of statement that could only be a swansong, sort of like Moses looking at the Promised Land before closing his eyes permanently. And Refused knew it. Everything about this cover is a vehicle for self-canonisation, of underlining the importance of this record as a blueprint for the future (simultaneously damning anyone who followed it too closely, of course.)
Borrowing from the authenticity and timelessness of Blue Note’s design aesthetic is a tricky move in a lot of ways, but the line is clear; not only is this an album that embraces the complexity of jazz, but also the restlessness, all while asserting the historical authority associated with a music of great artistic seriousness and impeccable taste. This is the kind of art on the walls of the people who know, right? As it’s been pointed out a lot, the jazz-signifier positioning takes a great deal from the Nation of Ulysses, not least that on Plays Pretty For Baby N.O.U. referenced the original Ornette Coleman with a song called “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. As such, there is a historical lineage of iconoclastic marriages of forward-thinking, genre busting talent (listening to Ornette right now, man, he is always the best) and wackjob deconstructivsm (ideologically, like Svenonius, or musically, like Coleman) formed from the title onwards. All are also outliers, culturally, Ornette coming from poorer than poor rural Texas, and Refused from Sweden. The idea of a punk record as a Statement in the way it is iterated here had been eschewed by nearly everyone in the American hardcore underground apart from Svenonius, and Plays Pretty for Baby was the closest they came to making one. Of course, that was the last N.O.U. album. Such is the continuation here that Refused, aesthetically, spared N.O.U. the trouble of having to make one.
Moving on, though, the choice of images is pretty deliberate in signifying what shape this future punk is to take; there is new technology (the guitar pedals), protest, dancing and movement, and the anonymity and unity of the performers. The use of hitherto unthinkable elements like 8-bit music in The Shape of Punk to Come is still cited as one of the defining aspects of the record, and rightfully so; including pedals hints, not overwhelmingly, that this is central to the practice, considering that punk began as a rejection of any kind of fucking around with the three-chords-and-the-truth formula.
And then the swing dancing; I flashed my eyes past it for years and always presumed it was moshing, but it’s swing dancing, drawing a line between the two moves, the two worlds, the two eras. While both occur speedily in a confined space, moshing is an expression of communal, unified aggression, while swing dancing is more refined, intuitive, autonomous. While still communal, it is not so dictated by the sweat and thud of others, allowing more time for individual thought and direct interaction with another. This is supposed to appeal to the higher, productive emotions, not the merely nihilistic and violent; punk as aesthetic, not as signifier-group.
The listing of the band members redoubles the echo of the jazz sleeves, while emphasises a decentralised view of the punk band as not merely a guitar/bass/drums/vocals group, but an ensemble. Furthermore, it’s one that differs to jazz, which might be billed under a performer-auteur’s name. Rather, punk must be necessarily collective, something underlined by the blanked-out eyes of the performers.
That heady subtitle echoes the myth of the farewell transmission ("Refused are Fucking Dead", after all) — this record is ‘chimerical’, in that it literally rises from the ashes of the band burning up on re-entry from the future, as well as being a ‘bombination’ of the senses that you bring back to life and re-experience every time you listen to it. As such, it is defined by a desire for active listening, a constant renewed attention. At the start of “New Noise”: “Can I scream?” You know he’s going to anyway; the question is all about directing the focus back on the object, the speech. Are you going to watch him scream? If a punk band destroys the patriarchy in the middle of the woods and no one is around to hear it, did it happen? If Refused make a masterpiece and no one recognises it, does it exist? Their answer is ‘no’. This record is defiantly punk in that it cannot be punk until it identified as such, and you can do that for them just by reading out the title. In this, they have built aesthetic validation, confirmation of their intent, into the very product before it is even consumed.
It has shades of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the tragic, gifted but not brilliant academic walking in the footsteps of men greater than him, working his way through his imagined progressive alphabet of intellectual success. In his view, everyone starts at A, and most get to M or some such. Very few get to R, where he is. But, with his best work behind him, how much he’d wish to get to S! He is doubly damned by his need for sympathy, to be recognised for his gifts so he can go on and produce the fruits of them. Without sympathy, he can’t do anything; he must be recognised as brilliant to feel himself brilliant and capable of more brilliance. Refused’s design, this aesthetic, is as brave as it is doomed to the power of the content to reach people; if this record was horrible, it might be the biggest piece of hubris in the whole dang history of cover art; consider how ridiculous the new Pop Etc. album cover was when it emerged how horrific the music was.
Those ‘woos!’ that come out in “New Noise” are thrilling; how rockist! How invigorating! How unfussy they seem, until they appear as another piece of the whole construction; the consciously placed pivot upon which Refused scroll between old scraps of music history to forge the new future of punk. Hardcore punk, having begun from a point of pure ascetic denial, now arrives at the point where it must eat the culture it originally set out to destroy, to deny, to survive. As such, by apology, this is music that defiantly stakes out a claim to ward off criticism, and requires being looked at and admired by a lot of people to achieve the goals it is inscribed with. This is self-canonisation by design, the deliberate construction of the masterpiece in a fashion similar to how good kid, m.A.A.d city constructed itself as same and was accorded status thusly. Through the ways in which it signifies and the standards and expectations it constructs in the viewer — the authority it confers itself— it has to be viewed as a masterpiece to be a masterpiece. Lucky the music is half decent, hey?