“The Menzingers are exactly what we need.”
By Rob Barbour
I once had a girlfriend who seemed haunted by her past. She was just a few years out of University when we met; old enough to be planning her future, her career, and making mostly sensible decisions at the weekend. She was smart, funny, fiercely intelligent and undeniably desirable. But those party days were recent enough to seem like a friend with whom she was losing touch, and with them a part of herself. This spectre frequently cast a shadow over both of us, as I was exactly the kind of guy she’d have rejected outright during her student days, when the narcotic of youth had intoxicated most of the men she’d encountered.
I couldn’t help but think of her the first time I heard ‘Bad Catholics’ and ‘Your Wild Years’, the back-to-back, thematically-conjoined twins which sit toward the end of After The Party, the fifth album from The Menzingers. It’s a short leap from ‘Catholics’ “To everyone you’re such a sweet church girl, but I know your secret” – addressed to a former partner in crime who’s settled down into (or just settled for) a wholesome family life – to ‘Your Wild Years’ “Your wild years that you often mention/The sands of time in an hourglass/That you’re always begging for back”. The record’s titular ‘Party’ isn’t a social event, but that decade of perceived indestructibility and never-ending fun which precedes the start of what we might deem ‘grown up life’.
The crisis of adulthood brought on by crashing into one’s thirties provides a particularly rich mine of artistic introspection for The Menzingers. The result is not just a realisation of everything the Philadelphia band have threatened to achieve over the last ten years, but a remarkable encapsulation of what it is to find yourself too young to be ‘old’, but too old for so much of what youth entails – “not young enough to be your companion/not old enough to be your guide” – as perfectly described on opener ‘20s (Tellin’ Lies)’.
Rather than announce itself with the ostentatiousness of a stimulant – instantly dilated pupils and sudden energy – ageing hits you like a large glass of whiskey: Slowly slurring speech and eyes which gradually plunge into darkness. There’s no point where you actively make the decision to ‘grow up’ – your body just starts rejecting the alternatives. The idea of waking up in last night’s clothes on the floor of a dorm room, shaking off the effects of a bottle of off-brand bourbon and doing it all again gradually stops sounding like a bohemian aspiration and starts to sound like a bloody hassle. But accepting that as the truth, admitting who you are and embracing it, isn’t easy in a society which so fetishises youth.
And that’s no doubt doubly true for anyone who’s chosen to dedicate their life to the ever-diminishing returns of being in a touring rock band. In your early 20s, there’s a romance to living on the breadline and sleeping on strangers’ sofas. But after the party, you stop being an edgy artist and become a grown adult who doesn’t have their shit together, and that slight sense of shame – the embarrassment of succumbing to the inexorable march of time – saturates this record.
2014’s Rented World saw the band ease off on the punk aggression of previous releases and ramp up the mid-paced melancholy; After the Party takes the heartbreaking honesty of that album’s best moments and seamlessly blends them with whichever incarnation of The Menzingers best suits the role. If you came for emotional, gruff punk singalongs then ‘Lookers’ was the best of 2016, and quite possibly 2017 as well. But ‘Thick as Thieves’ opens with what is essentially an AC/DC riff, and it’s only the second song.
So distractingly accomplished is the songcraft on ATP, it’s easy to forget just what a bleak observation of decay – physical and emotional – it really is. There’s an anthemic, life-affirming quality to much of the material here which sits gleefully at odds with the lyrics’ depiction of loss, destruction and the worst kinds of nostalgia.
In addition to a marked evolution in The Menzingers’ songwriting, much of this impact is down to producer Will Yip. Though Yip has earned a reputation as the man that emo bands go to when they want to sand down their edges, the gruff, unpolished nature of The Menzingers’ trademark sound remains at the album’s core. But around it, the music swells and contracts magnificently. The aforementioned 80s Arena Rock guitars may swaddle ‘Thick as Thieves’, but it’s a wall of acoustic guitars which drives ‘Lookers’ and its indelible “sha la la la/Jersey Girls” refrain while closer ‘Livin’ Ain’t Easy’ glides languidly around 80s goth guitar tones and echo-drenched vocals.
I’ve listened to After the Party at speed on the way to work. I’ve let it fill my living room at neighbour-baiting volumes and absorbed its nuances through headphones on winter walks. Every time, it has the same effect: I want to throw my arms up, grab a beer, and sing along. And I don’t even like beer. I want to inwardly – and occasionally outwardly – cry at the piercing accuracy of its lyrical imagery. And I want to hit ‘play’ again as soon as it’s over.
When we’re still being sold ‘punk’ bands who mistake hair wax for ethos, or trying to convince ourselves that Green Day’s Revolution Radio is good simply because it isn’t as terrible as the rest of their recent output, The Menzingers are exactly what we need. A passionate and poetic masterpiece, After the Party is a record worth celebrating.