Release Date: 04/10/2019
For Fans Of: The Gaslight Anthem, Spanish Love Songs, Against Me!
With 2017’s After the Party The Menzingers became the watermark by which to measure American heartland rock. With all the soul and storytelling of Springsteen and the punk attitude of Bad Religion, the Philly quartet created a record which so perfectly captured the bittersweet decade of reckless abandon and fighting against settling down. Their sound may be nothing new, but the quality of those songs is so high that I doubt I will be alone in saying that they will probably stick with me for the rest of my life. Despite previous records arguably being of just as high quality, this was the album which seemed to resonate most with their fans and represents the emotional high-point of their career so far.
Two years later, The Menzingers are back and are tasked with following that up with sixth album, Hello Exile. So, no pressure lads…
As the record opens with its two lead singles, ‘America (You’re Freakin’ Me Out)’ and ‘Anna’, it seems like The Menzingers have somehow struck oil at the same well twice. This one, two punch manages to capture that same energy and craft even more of the same undeniable hooks found on that last record; however, after this we are led down a much different path. It is somewhat unfair to compare Hello Exile to its predecessor too much; instead of an instantaneous party album which can be put on in a room full of people and have everyone scream every word back at the stereo in unison, here we have record which will take a little while to worm its way into your head. ‘Last To Know’ seems to hold itself back and build, slowly revealing the story contained within. The presence of a small organ section adds to the overall theme of death found on the track, showing that The Menzingers aren’t content to sit back on their barroom ballads and are trying to find new ways to draw out that emotional response. This degree of restraint also makes the subsequent ‘Strangers Forever’ feel that much more impactful and energetic, showing that they still know when to rev up the engine to full throttle.
Occasionally restraint also seems to manifest itself in the production and has rather the opposite effect of stealing a little bit of life out of these songs. There are times where the subtle little lead guitar lines and inflections seem to be buried really low in the mix. It is especially odd as there are also moments which feel really expansive and moments of grandeur such as in the country-style cinematic lament of the title track. Maybe it’s a matter of personal preference, but particularly on ‘Portland’ where the usually huge emotional high points of the song where the band would normally kick into overdrive that normally makes their hooks stick so well are robbed of some of their impact by a slightly less powerful lead.
The reason for this subtler production may simply be more to do with it fitting the overall themes of the record, as it seems to be much more comfortable with the idea of growing up instead of fighting against it. Despite seeming to wallow in this surrender occasionally on, ‘Hello Exile’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Drinking’ there is still a much greater feeling of comfort in ageing which is almost confirmed by closer ‘Farewell Youth’. Depending on the mood, this could be considered the best song of their career. The call-backs to ‘raising hell in your parents basement’ might be a bit of a cheap-pop for some, but that line coming on a song which introduces a few new elements to the band’s sound indicate that The Menzingers seem to be ready to embrace whatever comes next for them. Although it wouldn’t be right to say this record represents an expansion of the band’s sound, it certainly shows a change in approach rather than attitude. Illustrating this is ‘London Drugs’, a song which reveals itself more slowly, sneaking up on you and landing the gut-punch just when you think you’re safe. They still hit those emotional highs and lows but it feels like more time has been spent in thinking about how to get there and crafting narratives rather than simply relying on an instinctive ear for a hook which all members of the band clearly have. The gold standard of this kind of songwriting can be found littered through Springsteen’s mid-period, especially throughout ‘The River’; it’s clear that The Menzingers have that same spirit and energy, if this is the route they are heading down it will be a journey worth taking with them.
On Hello Exile it is clear that the band haven’t repeated the mistake too many others often do in simply trying to recreate ground they have already trodden. Instead this feels like the next chapter of their story. As 2014’s Rented World dealt with the remorse felt after On The Impossible Past‘s self destructive actions, Hello Exile shows the consequences of The Menzingers lightning in a bottle moment from After The Party. It shows us that after the decadence and the hangovers we are still left with the memories of the nights before. It shows a realisation that although everything changes, it’s still possible to find something new in that change. The party may be over, but there is still so much to look forward to.
Recommended Songs: Anna, Strangers Forever, Farwell Youth