Few punk rock bands to have emerged in the last decade have captured the attention of critics quite as much as The Menzingers. The fifth and latest studio effort from the Pennsylvanian punks, After The Party, arrives 10 years following the release of their debut, A Lesson In The Abuse Of Information Technology, and comparing the two records highlights the subtle but critical extent to which the band’s simple sound has progressed. Their first album was a pretty straightforward punk record, even including a cover of The Clash’s classic Straight to Hell, but nevertheless displayed some intricate pieces compiled in simple song structures with infectious refrains. 2012 saw the band truly break out into the critical and commercial success that they have seen in recent years, with the release of their magnum opus, On The Impossible Past. The Menzingers’ sound still came wrapped in its punk packaging, but featured a prevailing influence from Americana and the result evoked somewhat of a heartland rock vibe reminiscent of the likes of Bruce Springsteen. This album also saw a slightly different direction for the band lyrically, with an approach to topics such as heartache, loneliness and self-loathing that distinctly resembles Springsteen’s lyrics on his bleakest and most emotionally-challenging material, most notably on his 1982 album Nebraska. On After The Party, The Menzingers seem to have settled comfortably — almost too comfortably — into their sound that applies heartland rock principles to a punk rock aesthetic. This album does, however, demonstrate another lyrical path for the band, with many of these songs reflecting on their career thus fur and the situation in which they find themselves as an ageing punk band. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with this approach, seeing as other key players in modern punk music, such as Jeff Rosenstock, have agonised over similar issues, but the execution from The Menzingers on After The Party is often safe to the point that a significant portion of these tracks lack a huge deal of memorability and are far from being amongst the band’s strongest work.
The opening track, Tellin’ Lies, acts as a sufficient mission statement for the band’s approach on this album, with Greg Barnett repeating, “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?”, in his usual gruff voice. The lyrics of this song also allude to other, more specific recurring themes on the album, such as the use of alcohol and drugs to ease one’s life problems, alienation from one’s peers and the social stigma surrounding certain life choices adopted by members of the band. The overarching themes are presented with the blunt and slightly tongue-in-cheek approach that one could expect from a punk band, and Tellin’ Lies comes across as one of the better songs on the record as a result. Musically too, this track is most definitely a highlight, with the band remaining completely in form as they blast through the piece’s varying passages. Whilst not featuring one of The Menzingers’ catchiest choruses, it is certainly performed with a healthy dose of energy that would send a small pub of punks into a frenzy. The following cut, Thick As Thieves, continues the lyrical highpoint of the record, with the opening line of, “I held up a liquor store demanding topshelf metaphors” catching the listener’s attention immediately. It also features one of the better instrumental arrangements on the album, with the song progressing subtly but effectively and boasting one of the more memorable choruses on After The Party. At this point in the record, The Menzingers haven’t taken any major risks and have stayed in their comfort zone quite nicely, but they sound on form, simply delivering more of the same that fans have come to expect from the punk outfit.
Lookers is a very peculiar song in the tracklisting, and for many reasons. Firstly, the introduction maintains somewhat of a lo-fi emo vibe, as it opens with a simple guitar pattern accompanied by Tom May’s distant vocals, delivering some lyrics that are melancholic almost to the point of cliché. Of course, this doesn’t last long until the pop punk instrumental kicks in. At this point, it occurred to me that maybe May’s lyrics over the introduction were intended to be satirical or sarcastic in some way, and I expected his next verse over the straightforward punk groove to reflect this, but he instead repeats the same lines again. For the rest of the song, it’s very hard to tell whether these lyrics are meant to be taken seriously or not. May’s allusion to the work of American novelist Jack Kerouac certainly seems to be serious, but then the “Sha la la la” chorus with lines referring to Jersey girls at nightclubs seems trite to a comedic point, leaving me puzzled as to what the intention of these lyrics is. On the surface, they come across as a mundane reflection on one’s younger years with a slight lack of self-awareness, but they could also be an attempt at humour that doesn’t translate all that well. Either way, it’s songs like Lookers and other tracks on After The Party that seem to do the opposite of what they were intended to do, in that, by reflecting on the group’s position as an ageing band, they portray themselves as more aged than they are, and the lack of self-awareness towards this ironically reinforces some of the points they’re making, just in a different way as to how they had envisaged.
On the musical side of things, it must be said that a handful of songs on After The Party demonstrate that The Menzingers are perhaps too settled in their brand of punk music, making for some songs feeling rather tired and stale. From the perspective of a fan, the band are certainly dependable in repeatedly delivering the stylings that their followers have come to expect, but from a more pessimistic perspective, the ideas brought to the table aren’t always quite interesting enough to justify reusing such rudimentary tropes. The results aren’t bad necessarily, rather it seems that their songwriting formula doesn’t distinguish the band from their competition like it used to, with some of these songs being unfortunately rather forgettable. This is the part that makes my role as a music critic quite hard, as it’s certainly difficult to pinpoint a selection of specific things that are “wrong” with the songs in question and offer constructive criticism because, ultimately, they’re perfectly good tracks. Instead, my reservations arise from an underlying personality issue presented on this album, in that it doesn’t display the definitive musical identity featured on much of The Menzingers’ previous work. Ultimately, there seems to be a fundamental flatness displayed by the band’s MO, which has resulted in the impact of their attitude towards songwriting diminishing naturally overtime, and they are yet to address this by making any significant changes.
All in all, After The Party is by no means a bad record, and I certainly see why it would sate the desires of many a fan of The Menzingers, but I can’t help but feel that it comes across as “just another record from The Menzingers”. Whilst the group do exhibit a new approach to writing lyrics, it’s neither as significant nor as effective as that which was featured on their seminal On The Impossible Past. That 2012 album also demonstrated a clear challenge for the band, which brought out their best songwriting to date, whereas the inherently unchallenging nature of After The Party leaves it feeling mundane at the worst of times. Nevertheless, this album doesn’t sully the band’s discography in any way, nor does it suggest that they can’t come out with some more exciting material in the future, but for the time being, their latest effort doesn’t achieve anything new or fresh for the band, which works to its detriment.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10