The Menzingers are a four-piece punk band from Scranton, PA, sharing the same hometown as band sibling Tigers Jaw. Although not musically the same, The Menzingers have a similar lyrical purpose to The Smiths: to tell detailed, emotional narratives about everyday people. Except, instead of about middle-aged well-read women and ambiguously gay recluses, it’s about 20-somethings sporting tattoos of high school bands, drinking in American cars, and falling in love with waitresses who smoke the same cigarettes as you. Also very Smiths-like, The Menzingers’ choruses would otherwise be unrelatably pathetic (“So I’m marching up to your gates today / to throw my lonely soul away”) if they weren’t sandwiched by poetic-but-concrete verses (“You’ll carve your names into the Paupack Cliffs / Just read them when you get old enough to know / that happiness is just a moment”). The Menzingers have refined this punk niche so sharply that it threatens to be formulaic: Their albums consistently alter between 12 and 13 songs that all clock in around 3.5 minutes; there’s always a very, very singalongable chorus that makes them necessary to see live; and there’s often a minor bridge just before singing the chorus one more time. After The Party, their fifth album (and latest 13-song installment), follows this formula almost perfectly, and it still works, but only some of the time. Here we see The Menzingers taking a look back rather than a look forward, lyrically staying very much their same nostalgic, depressed selves, but lacking the musical heft that made you turn up and shout along with their previous albums.
The Menzingers must have taken their high school English teacher’s advice “always start your essays with your thesis statement” to heart, because the first line or chorus of every Menzingers album summarizes the whole thing. On The Impossible Past started off with “I’ve been having a horrible time pulling myself together;” Rented World was even more direct, with the first song titled “I Don’t Want To Be An Asshole Anymore.” On After The Party, we get the chorus “Where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over?” The Menzingers put a lot of energy into creating a theme of bittersweet nostalgia, embarrassed regrets, and last stands to have boyish fun before getting too old; but it’s difficult to make a well-thought theme stick when the music isn’t driving enough to drive the point home. The opener “Tellin’ Lies” is almost a perfect Menzingers opener, all the way up to the emotional drop-down bridge, but then the song just seems to fade away with no clear conclusion. Then we get “Thick As Thieves,” whose main riff is so simple that the band just seems bored, which makes me question why they picked this one as one of the singles.
“Lookers” is a much less forgettable single, and most explicitly follows this “god I’m getting old” theme. We see guitarist/singer Greg Barnett looking at an old photo of himself and saying, “Man, I looked good…” (but more eloquently). It also doesn’t make the same mistake as “Tellin’ Lies,” taking us home with a good drumline after the bridge. “Midwestern States” is one of the strongest on the record, making a lot of emotional weight out of three or four notes while dynamically getting louder at the right times.
“Charlie’s Army,” on the other hand, is one of the weaker songs on the album; the melody is about as bubblegum pop as punk can get, and I’m a bit tired of the tried-and-false “her guy wants to kill me” trope. The main redeeming thing on this one is the lyric easter egg “I’m not gonna tell him I’m sorry / ‘cause it’s me and her after the party,” which connects this weaker song to the title track (which we’ll get to in a bit).
“House on Fire” starts off with a sound reminiscent of early Titus Andronicus or a toned-down Japandroids, but eventually fades out when it probably shouldn’t. This lack of action continues on “Black Mass,” which tries to redeem itself with lyrics like “We used to get high and stare at the moon / and wonder how long it would take to walk to / but now that’s the distance between you and me” but doesn’t quite succeed.
“Boy Blue” shows that The Menzingers still have a knack for making wordy choruses really catchy, and we see another strong just-before-the-end bridge which vocally and lyrically reminds me of the end of Green Day’s “Letterbomb.” “Bad Catholics” - the other single, whose main riff makes me think of a Strokes b-side - continues with the “god I’m getting old” theme, talking about going to a church picnic and seeing an ex-lover now married and pregnant (an image too cheesy for my lactose intolerant tastes to digest).
However, the last four songs on the album give us moments (remember, happiness is just a moment) that are what I really wanted After The Party to be. “Your Wild Years” has a chorus that is destined for a prime-time spot at live shows, and the rougher guitar breakdown with the cheeky line “I got drunk in the afternoon / with your father in the living room” make The Menzingers successful in going back to their youthful selves (but only for a moment). The middle of “The Bars” is almost like a separate song - it’s possibly the best part of the album and certainly the most driving (I can picture the moshing and dancing now). Why are these moments just moments?
Meanwhile, “After The Party” definitely deserves to be the album’s namesake. I think many Menzingers fans would agree that On The Impossible Past is their magnum opus, and I often point to that album as the best example of vocals that can smoothly alter between rough shouting and melodies that would make mid-2000s pop punk bands like The All-American Rejects jealous. The Menzingers leaned away from this kind of vocal delivery on Rented World, and it’s just about absent on After The Party, except for “After The Party.” Maybe this is why, after listening to the album a few times, this is the song I’ve sung more than any other on the album. Finally, the title and chorus of “Livin’ Ain’t Easy” just seems too expected to actually be the last track of The Menzingers' fifth album, but again this song is vindicated by an extremely catchy (and this time stuttering) hook that prove that the band can make an earworm out of just about anything.
I still have hope for The Menzingers - they’re one of the more genuine and thoughtful indie punk bands out there - but they’ll have to move away from this formula if they want to move ahead. But maybe they don’t - maybe they want to keep looking back on their 20s and how great those times were. Almost every song on After The Party still infects me with very enduring earworms (just like any other Menzingers record), but the band will have to deliver some musical novelty to make these earworms more welcome.
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PS: I should note that the author I'm sharing this review with (Kristen Swanson) introduced me to The Menzingers back when we were both editors of our college music magazine. We went to a lot of shows together, but The Menzingers show was particularly memorable, and now I'll always see The Menzingers when they're in town (even for the After The Party tour). I wouldn't be writing album reviews without Kristen, and my music taste would probably be a lot worse, too.
For the past 7 or so years I have been saying that The Menzingers are the best current punk band around. Not only do they put on a hell of a live show, but their records resonate weeks, months, years after listening to them. A punk band that manages to stay relevant, it's impressive. The Menzingers are a band that helped me channel my early 20s aggression and heartbreak. Their albums have been there for me through road trips, bus rides, break-ups, friendships—through adulthood. And the deeper I get into my late 20s the more punk bands I once loved have become mantel piece novelties on my record shelf.
That being said, After The Party was the first Menzingers album I didn't instantly fall in love with. The struggle I have with this album is that I see maturity musically, but the lyrics are leaning too heavily on sentimentality. It's a Menzingers album, it's written in the self reflective manner we all know and love, but for a band I regard in such a high manner, I really wanted them to push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Slightly breaking that comfort zone barrier was the opening track "Tellin' Lies" where they not only reference their fan base, but also themselves as late 20-somethings feeling their youth slip away. Punk music is stigmatized as this adolescent, almost immature, genre, and "Tellin' Lies" felt like an attempt to break that mold and still remain relevant to fans of the Menzingers' previous work. Originally I wasn't sure if the theme of "Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over" was cliche or endearing, which I've now decided lies somewhere in the middle.
Another reason I've always loved Menzingers' albums is that they weren't full of fillers—I could listen to every track on the album without skipping songs. That's not the case with After The Party. "Thick As Thieves" and "Charlie's Army" were grouped in a category of "meh" for me. The chords were too familiar and the lyrics left something to be desired; not what I expected to hear on this release. Here's the thing, though—After The Party is full of highs and lows. And I will say that after seeing the band perform the record live it further highlighted tracks I had glossed over originally when I first listened to the album.
"Lookers" is an instant Menzingers classic—it's catchy (probably the catchiest song on the whole album), it's a tale of heartbreak and longing, and it's bound to remind you of someone you know. "Midwestern States" grew on me fast, it's one of my favorites on the entire album (if not my favorite)—it has momentum, relatable yet heartfelt lyrics, and a melodic chorus to singalong with. Furthermore, The Menzingers have this amazing ability to build anticipation within a song, which isn't surprising for a punk band, but it's their consistent ability to do so that impresses me. "House On Fire" is the perfect example of this with its mellow start and strong ending. Further credit, "Black Mass" was the perfect track to break up the album with and falls nicely in the middle of the track list.
Musically I'm in love with the track "Boy Blue" which is very remiminent of classic punk songs, but lyrically I'm struggling to connect with it. That being said, I wouldn't be opposed to more songs along this line in the future. "Bad Catholics" is catchy, however the lyrics falter hard on sentimentality. I'm still unsure about the chorus for "Your Wild Years", but the overall lyrics are extremely relatable and impeccably well-written.
"We stayed in your adolescent room/Rummaged through the boxes labeled "former you"/The souvenirs of happiness in the moment."
I love everything the Menzingers stand for, they are the founders of the 20-somethings angst club. Their music is a reminder to take advantage of those happy moments because that's exactly what happiness is, a moment. Based off the title I thought the song "The Bars" would render sentiment, but it's one of the stronger songs on the album that really ties the theme together. I love the song "After The Party", the lyrics are everything I wanted the entire album to be:
"We put miles on these old jean jackets/Got caught up in the drunk conversations/But after the party, it's me and you".
The song is placed perfectly near the ending of the roller coaster ride of a 20-something's ups and downs of life. "Livin' Ain't Easy" isn't my favorite track, although lyrically (and a tad too obviously) I understand why it's the ending track. I really dig the effortless styling of simple words like "lobby" and "coffee", but the clever catchiness didn't distract from the overly cliche ending. Overall, the shinning moments on After The Party make it a worthwhile album and something The Menzingers can be proud of. I just hope in the future the band pushes themselves for more than just moments because I see something groundbreaking and lasting when/if they hit their full potential.
PSS: The Menzingers are a band I hold near and dear to my heart because without them I wouldn't have these moments of happiness I spent with friends I'll never forget. Here's to all the 20-somethings holding near and dear their moments of happiness (inlcuding those moments getting sweaty at Menzingers' shows together), and most importantly to one of my favorite 20-somethings on this planet who I got to share this review with.
7.0 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
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