Artist: The Menzingers
Album: After the Party
Audience: Fans willing to stick it out while the band shifts gears.
Bottom Line: Not the best album they’ve put out despite truly amazing cohesion and consistency.
Stand Out Songs: Midwestern States, Thick as Thieves, Bad Catholics
The Menzingers put a Down Payment on their Rented World
The Menzingers had a pretty good run lately, steadily releasing a new album every 2-3 years to increasing critical acclaim. Their last three offerings constitute a particularly effective “hearts and minds” campaign to reform the indie consensus on pop-punk (or, with the influx of pop-rock bands calling themselves ‘pop-punk’ we might want to say popular/mainstream punk). Their plea from Rented World, “I don’t want to be an asshole anymore” came through loud and clear. This year, they delivered on that promise. Although After the Party is likely to receive less attention than either of their last two records, it’s a fantastic demonstration of just how well the band has aged since 2014. It doesn’t pack the same emotional weight that Rented World but it shows just how nuanced and polished mainstream rock can become without loosing its edge.
Guitarist and vocalist Greg Barnett cites Valdimir Nabokov, coffe dregs, and Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love” as inspirations for the title track alone, and that seems to sum up the issues that I have with the album. It’s missing a little bit of honest grit that the old albums managed to capture. The Menzingers used to feel like an overly-famous bar band throwing out tight riffs and overambitious sing-along choruses, and that’s why we loved them. They didn’t have Dave Hause’s take on middle-America, they didn’t have the Gaslight Anthem’s stadium rock sound, they didn’t have the small-band cred of Captain We’re Sinking (fronted by Barnett’s brother), what they had was ambition and a kind of raw talent listeners couldn’t get past. The whole albums sounds a bit like the band members just overthought each song. When they move away from the backroad exploration of weird licks and hard-hitting distortion, they introduce a level of care and attention that seemed to make Rented World and On the Impossible Past so special. The Menzingers figured out that there’s only one way to fit everything into the album that they wanted to: practice and polish. The problem is, the incomplete-but-still-amazing character of their old albums was half the charm.
Barnett sings “I hope this isn’t a burden / Thanks for having us over / we could sleep on the couch / we could sleep on the floor / we would leave before you even noticed we were here” and that’s part of the problem. I think we liked it when the Menzingers didn’t want to be assholes anymore but just couldn’t help it. The late-night drinks and getaway anthems are still here, but they’re tinged with the nuance of songs constructed like jigsaw puzzles, every piece in place to make sure it all fits together. It’s music you expect to hear in a grunge bar around last call, not really the place or time for the doing puzzles.
They try to bring it around later in the song saying “all our stick and pokes, all our inside jokes / we’ll regret them when we’re dead and sober / but were still breathing and the party ain’t over” but the party is over. It’s not that they’ve stopped partying, but they’re veering dangerously close to the kind of “wild” nights punctuated by opening a new bottle of wine and checking in on the babysitter. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by Rented World.
What the Menzingers do really really well on this album is put together a visually appealing album. Barnett’s inspiration from Nabokov was to think in images rather than words. This is a double edged sword, and the lyrical acrobatics of their contemporaries far outpace what Barnett performs on After the Party. What they’ve lost in lyrical quips they make up for in the fit and finish of each song along the way. There’s no sense that they’re wasting time. The ennui of being a 20-something is largely gone from this album. It’s more a reflection on what that life might be like than a reflection of what it is like to be 21 in 2017. The empty spaces are indicated more by choruses about driving to LA than actual empty space on the tracks. The album drops the ups and downs of Rented World in favor of a more consistent approach. None of the tracks particularly seem like a disappointment, but none seem spectacular either. “Thick as Thieves” and “Bad Catholics” are good tracks, but still stand second in my mind to “Casey,” “Mexican Guitars,” and “I Don’t Wanna to Be An Asshole Anymore.”
That seems to be a good way to sum up the album. Worth a listen for the maturity that Barnett brings to After the Party, but the party has certainly ended. The Menzingers are clearly headed in a different direction and it might take them a while to ascend to the same heights they found in their garage rock/bar band days.