“People see rock ‘n’ roll as, as youth culture and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business what are the youth to do? Do you, do you have any idea?” intones an interviewer. “I think,” a voice replies “we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture.” That excerpt is taken from “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” a documentary that followed the 1991 Sonic Youth and Nirvana tour. The reply given is by Thurston Moore, legendary Sonic Youth guitarist himself.
Now, if a band were to sample that quote as an opener to arguably their best song, what genre of music would you think that band traffics in? Punk, perhaps, both because of the theme of the documentary and the anti-capitalist ambitions. Or maybe Public Enemy-style conscious hip hop, or reggae, or even new-era protest folk. Or maybe, they make blissed-out fuzz-pop from democratic-socialist Sweden – wait, what? But sure enough, as incongruous as the pairing seems, that soundbite opens “Heaven’s On Fire,” the second song from Swedish dream-pop outfit The Radio Dept.’s third album, 2010's Clinging to a Scheme.
Then, before the interviewer even has time to finish his question, the music starts, seemingly in direct opposition to the tone of the sample. First, a sprightly synth, playing a melody line so catchy it’s a miracle no one had found it before. Then, jangly guitars transported directly from a sunny 60s AM radio station. And, what’s that? — the synth has transmogrified into a chorus of woodwind, transporting the listener to a breezy, tropical beach. Quite a way to tear down the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture.
The Radio Dept. had been a going concern for years prior to “Heaven’s On Fire,” releasing their debut album, Lesser Matters, in 2003 to some critical acclaim from NME among others. But even having some tracks from the album featured on Sofia Coppola’s irreverent 2006 period piece Marie Antoinette didn’t really gain them any traction in North America. Pet Grief, their 2006 sophomore album, expanded their sound but did little to increase their notoriety. When they released Clinging to a Scheme in 2010, it quickly became the band’s biggest album in both Sweden (peaking at #11 on the Swedish charts), and North America (peaking at #20 on the Heatseekers chart, so still a rather niche outfit) in part because of its incorporation of more traditional song structures and melodies, toning down the more shoegaze-y tendencies of their previous work (which are nonetheless still present and still excellent).
“Heaven’s On Fire” represents the peak of this move towards accessibility. The melodies are insistent, the mixing is clear, and the music, like I mentioned above, is jaunty and insistent. These qualities are juxtaposed by the lyrics, which are decidedly less effervescent. However, the lyrics only have a tangential relationship to the opening screed— mostly, they’re about the feeling you get when you dislike a person very, very intensely. Perhaps coincidentally, this is in direct opposition to the theme of the KISS song of the same name, released 26 years earlier.
Right off the bat, in the second line of the song, the band inserts one of the most slyly cutting put-downs ever committed to tape, hidden in a wash of breathy echo: “I wish I didn’t know you better, but it’s pointless.” Things only get more dour from there, all while the band maintains their cheery backdrop: “When I look at you, I reach for a piano wire” is definitely a not-so-subtle threat.
There is a theory floating around on Genius and elsewhere that “Heaven’s On Fire” is about The Radio Dept.’s distaste with a music industry that mostly ignored them while they put out some of their genre’s best music, and the chorus reinforces that idea, with lead singer Johan Duncanson singing that “seems like everyone is on your side / we’re outnumbered by those who take no pride.” And while I’m certain there’s truth to this theory, which is also bolstered by the initial sample, The Radio Dept. do a good job couching it in lyrics that are more vague, more universal, and more relatable to those who aren’t struggling with an A&R department. Instead of lashing out, changing up their sound, making something different and angry, they settled into their sound and amplified its most accessible, catchiest attributes while never sacrificing the style they made their name on. With that sharp focus, “Heaven’s On Fire” became the biggest and best song that the Radio Dept. has ever put out, and isn’t that the biggest act of defiance you can commit? Big business is still working on destroying youth culture, but songs like “Heaven’s On Fire” push back on that encroachment with righteous anger, do-it-yourself attitude, and damn good music.