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The Menzingers - Hello Exile Music Album Reviews

What does it mean to get older in punk? Were the good old days ever that good? Though the titles change, the Pennsylvania band’s song remains the same.

The Menzingers write about basically one thing, though contrary to this tweet, it’s not the waitress outside the all-night diner. The seven-year span from their second LP Chamberlain Waits to 2017’s After the Party is a longitudinal study of men in their 20s struggling to process the passage of time, drinking away the tragicomic pain of reliving the good ol’ days that never happened. Imagine “Glory Days” if it was just the third verse, the high-school jocks and heartbreakers replaced by guys in dumpy vans and stalled relationships wishing they committed themselves to something more substantial—or as “House on Fire” put it, “waiting for your life to start, then you die.” After the Party occasionally gave the impression that the Menzingers recognized this form of nostalgia as an artistic dead end, posing “Where we gonna go now that our 20s are over?” as an existential crisis. Instead, Hello Exile reframes it as a question with a single, obvious answer: They’re gonna go right back to making Menzingers songs about getting older.

“How do I steer my early 30s/Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40,” Greg Barnett announces at the outset, and despite the parallels to the aforementioned line from After the Party opener “Tellin’ Lies,” the intention is different—there’s an unexpected optimism amidst the pervasive societal turmoil of “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” a willingness to see a wasted 20s as a dry run for responsible adulthood instead of a sunk cost or an endlessly renewable resource for self-loathing. Like most bands in their position, Menzingers commit to living in the moment by proclaiming “we do politics now.” While the title of “Strawberry Mansion” would usually promise yet another hardscrabble account of drinking Keystone Light in the Keystone State, this time, the Menzingers describe the impending environmental apocalypse in the same language as “Born to Run” (“Set a course for the sun/To bittersweet oblivion”).

And while none of Barnett’s insights on “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” are remotely original—“What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?”; “Cranks for Christians in powerful positions/I’ve always felt like all their pomp and circumstance is just cover for the devil to dance”; “Can’t you recognize truth from clever lies?”— they paint a sympathetic and empathetic portrait. Menzingers’ narrators aren’t radicals, and neither are the Menzingers; their musical progressions are incremental and headed towards predictable outcomes. The slower songs are a little bit more country, the more uptempo ones a bit more rootsy, and all of it is bolstered by typically brawny Will Yip production that cuts through the chatter of any barroom or basement.

Since they perfected their craft with On the Impossible Past, the boundary between Menzingers songs and parodic “Menzingers songs” has all but disappeared, undermining their heartfelt honesty with bingo cards of burly, sensitive-rock-guy tropes seen through Pabst-colored lenses. “I was getting fucked up with a high school friend/Wondering where all the good times went”; “I know what you’re thinking but I can’t stop drinking”; those used to be the subtexts of Menzingers songs, but now they’re choruses on songs literally called “High School Friend” and “I Can’t Stop Drinking.” The plot to “Anna” is quintessential “Menzingers”—a guy starts to realize his girlfriend’s outgrowing him (“It’s like our studio apartment is just a place to keep your stuff”) and can’t summon the confidence to make up the ground between them. Instead, he begs her “please come back to Philadelphia” so they can relive their first days living together, dancing in the kitchen and “drinking cheap red wine.”

As it is in many Menzingers songs (scare quotes or otherwise), “cheap” is an important qualifier, one that cuts against Anna’s job promotion and newfound upward mobility. While people might not ever face abject poverty in a Menzingers song, they’re always one squandered paycheck or shitty tour away from couch-surfing for the next year. But throughout Hello Exile, “cheap” ends up exposing a poverty of new ideas: Barnett wants to rekindle a relationship on “Portland” with “cheap Champagne and roses”; he swears this “cheap motel” is temporary on “Strain Your Memory,” even though you’ll find him plastered off “cheap beer” in “I Can’t Stop Drinking,” and when everyone comes together in a “Farewell Youth,” they’re “drinking the cheap stuff.” “Farewell youth, I hardly got to know you,” Barnett sings, but even though they get older, “Menzingers songs” remain the same.

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