In spite of, or perhaps as a result of, the increasingly arbitrary nature of format in popular music, very few bands in recent memory have displayed a simultaneous prolificacy between albums and separate, non-anchor singles. The prototype goes back all the way to the first half of the 20th century, but this discographic trend peaked in the ’80s, with New Order and The Smiths representing the most fruitful abundance of non-album singles as complement to their long players. Market played a factor of course; in the United States, “Blue Monday” and “How Soon Is Now?” ended up as bonus tracks, but on the whole, both bands shattered what has since been considered a rockist notion of an artist as merely being proficient at one or another. That dichotomy has been rare for some time, at least among artists of similar stature, yet for the past eight years, Sweden’s The Radio Dept. has been building up their own catalog of excellent dream-pop albums and equally excellent, and for that matter independent, singles and EPs.
Released less than a year after the band’s most recent full-length Clinging To a Scheme, The Radio Dept.’s two-disc singles retrospective, Passive Aggressive, presents an almost complete look at the band’s entire singles history since 2002. Organized chronologically, with A-sides comprising one disc and B-sides lining up the second, Passive Aggressive is, in a way, the band’s own Substance. And much like that legendary compilation, the overwhelming bulk of the material here never actually made it onto any of the band’s three albums. Those that did only total about an EP’s worth of music, but among that group is last year’s transcendent “Heaven’s On Fire,” a best-of necessity if ever one existed.
Presnted in such a neatly arranged format, Passive Aggressive gives the listener and clear and pristine view of The Radio Dept.’s history through their singles. And like the best retrospectives, its tracklist delineates a strong narrative, from the band’s earlier shoegazer sounds to their more dance-friendly A-sides of late. From the beginning, the band sounds scrappy and noisy, if still the blissfully hazy band of which they’ve come to be regarded today. The band’s three-minute nuggets like “Why Won’t You Talk About It?” and “Where Damage Is Already Done” mark a radiant meeting place between Saint Etienne and My Bloody Valentine, while later highlights such as “Ewan” and “Pulling Our Weight” start to reveal some more restraint and softness, the band’s sound still hazy but more streamlined and sweet. With “We Made the Team” and “The Worst Taste In Music,” synthesizers and programmed beats come to make a more pronounced presence beneath Johan Duncanson’s melancholy vocals, while they achieve pop perfection on the trio of singles from Clinging To a Scheme. That perfection spills over into the final A-side, “The New Improved Hypocrisy,” a protest song that encapsulates the idea of ‘passive aggressive’: though there are pointed critiques within Duncanson’s lyrics, they’re delivered through a gorgeous and dense melody, killing their targets with non-threatening beauty.
The B-sides collected on Passive Aggressive reveal a similar route as the first disc from the noisy shoegazer tracks to the disco-inflected dream pop, though the band pushes deeper into their more extreme realms. In just the first track, “Liebling,” the group appears to be playing their loudest and fastest, and despite the low-key and soporific tone, “We Would Fall Against The Tide” heaps on copious amounts of fuzz and feedback. “You and Me Then?”, though less than 90 seconds long, is a striking juxtaposition of massive drum sounds and delicate piano, while “Tåget,” less than 60 seconds long, is little more than gorgeous guitar licks and birdsong. And while there are fewer boundaries and more experimentation, the quality remains at an astounding high, from the indecipherable vocals and Fleetwood Mac-like grooves on “Closing Scene” to the pulsing bass drum that ignites “Messy Enough.”
A good singles collection shouldn’t merely be a clearinghouse for a band’s most popular songs, it should tell a story. The one that Passive Aggressive implicitly narrates is one of a brave but meticulous band, fully formed upon arrival as glimmering shoegazer underdogs but progressing toward being one of indie pop’s most consistently compelling acts. The Radio Dept. have three excellent albums to their name, but the narrative that exists behind their many singles and EPs is a gripping story all its own.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.