Greg Graffin, purveyor of optimistic folk-rock songs?
The generations of punks who were reared on Bad Religion, where Graffin is the melodically venomous lead singer, might be forgiven for doing a spit-take at “Millport,” Graffin’s new album.
Southern California punk music, after all, was born in part as a reaction to the tepid soft rock of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the canyon-rock peers who were floating near the top of the album charts during the early 1970s.
Has Graffin ,who cofounded Bad Religion with Epitaph Records owner Brett Gurewitz, lost his mind?
“Just because it’s a great privilege and I greatly appreciate all the people who love Bad Religion, that doesn’t mean I’m going to pander,” says Graffin. “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to be commercially motivated to capitalize on that.”
A 10-song project created to explore different kinds of tensions, it features Social Distortion members — drummer David Hidalgo Jr., bassist Brent Harding and Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham (electric and acoustic guitars) — and was produced by Gurewitz.
With a title that’s a far cry from early Bad Religion albums as “How Can Hell Be Any Worse?” and “Suffer,” “Millport” is named for a town near where Graffin now lives in upstate New York. Its notably pastoral cover suggests the humbleness within.
“I wanted every song to be happy,” says Graffin, relaying the first of a few rules he made to himself while writing “Millport.” “I wanted every song to not include the word ‘me.’ I wanted every song to be very evocative — reminders of icons of history and heritage.”
It’s not all roses, though. In “Time of Need,” Graffin wrestles with the existential reality that no matter his heritage or level of success, doom awaits. “In the end there’s no refrain/ There’s just a bag of sour lemons and a name,” he sings with a touch of rasp, to piano backing. “Now, all your hard work and all you’ve made known/ Will be carved on a twelve-inch stone.”
As the song progresses, textures of old gospel music float to the surface. Instead of an “amen” refrain, however, Graffin and a small choir steer away from religion by instead singing, “Hey man.”
Graffin stresses that he followed his instincts not as a way of sticking his head in the sand or for sentimental purposes “but, rather, as reminders of things that are still deeply relevant.”
He pauses to add: “I guess, you know, part of that is my own struggle with getting older and remaining relevant.”
This isn’t Graffin’s first so-called departure.
In addition to his two other solo albums, both of which also sidestepped Bad Religion-style aggression, the artist, 52, became known as a kind of punk rock scientist after he earned a zoology PhD from Cornell University on the back of his dissertation, “Evolution, Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist World-View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology.”
In 2010, he turned that experience into his first book, “Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God.”
In comparison to a godless world, “Millport” seems like a breeze. With songs such as “Backroads of My Mind,” “Sawmill,” Norman Blake’s “Lincoln’s Funeral Train” and “Echo on the Hill,” it’s the result of what Graffin describes as “an intellectual quest” to meld “different cultures and different aspects of our enlightened society to try and provoke dialogue and try to bring together different communities.”
The artist cites as inspiration singer-songwriters including Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt, Steven Stills and Elton John, as well as Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse.
Further, Graffin notes that “Millport” is the product of a kind of bequest: “This kind of music is a part of me,” he says. “And it’s a kind of music that was handed down to me from numerous generations in my family.”
Still, Graffin’s been around the music business long enough to understand its fickleness.
“Let’s face it, it’s not for everybody,” Graffin concludes.
“If you want to slam dance, I wouldn't buy this record. That's just the way it goes — although sometimes I like to slam dance and sometimes I like to square dance. I mean, I’m a rounded human being.”