Monday, 4 November 2019

Album Review: Hello Exile by The Menzingers (by Emma Prew)

The Menzingers are one of my very favourite bands of all time. They are also arguably one of the post popular ‘punk’ bands of the last decade and so when it came to releasing their sixth album there was a lot of trepidation, as well anticipation, surrounding the band. I admit that nothing The Menzingers will ever release could surpass my love and appreciation for On The Impossible Past, the band’s third album. For a lot of people, who share my opinion, it’s because we had OTIP at the right time of our lives. However, in 2017 The Menzingers released After The Party, an album which exceeded all expectations I had and fast became my second favourite of theirs. They couldn’t possibly make an album better than After The Party could they?!

My instant answer is no, Hello Exile did not grab me in the same way. After spending some more time with the album, discussing my thoughts with some pals online – people really love this band and really want to share their feelings about it – and with Colin at home, I still don’t think the album is as good as After The Party but it has grown on me and still is growing on me. It has good points and not so good points and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings with regards to the songs on this album. So, although I initially had no intention of reviewing this, I want to write these things down. It might not be quite the same as my usual reviews but I think that in thinking about each song individually and delving more deeply into the lyrical content, I may well learn to love Hello Exile. I’m certainly open to trying – I owe The Menzingers that much for all they’ve given me.

Hello Exile kicks off with a typically Menzingers-sounding bang[er]. If I hadn’t already heard America (You’re Freaking Me Out) prior to the album’s release, my reaction probably would have been ‘Yes! This is awesome!’. I mean, it is a great song and I guess it’s my fault for listening to the singles and not waiting for the full album, but I suppose what I’m trying to say is it’s a shame the album opens with a song we’ve all already heard. That said, it is brilliant to hear The Menzingers delving into politics here – something they’ve not done a great deal of across their 13 year existence. Lines like ‘New penthouses next to tents in the streets’ and ‘What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?’ really hit home. The track is probably one of the punk-est on the album and, in that respect, is certainly a good jump-start to the album. Next up we have Anna, with a typically nostalgic-infused mid-tempo Menzingers sound that we’ve come to know and love over the past few years. This was also released as a single – the first single in fact – so, again, it’s something listeners will be familiar with. The song is packed full of emotion and lyrics that are just begging to be screamed along to – think Gates or Your Wild Years style. Anna is, I think, not a real person but the song is about someone who has gone away for a while, in this case gone away from Philadelphia, and how the place isn’t the same without them. ‘I have so much to tell ya, Please come back to Philadelphia, This place ain't the same without you, Anna. And oh, how the neighbourhood’s changed, And all our friends keep asking for ya, This place ain't the same without you, Anna.’ The Menzingers seem to have got increasingly more ‘heartland rock’ since their last album, After The Party. The melodies in third song, High School Friend, sound very Springsteen-esque although I don’t think you’d get the boss singing ‘I was getting fucked up with a high school friend, Wondering where all the good times went.’! The Americana meets punk rock sound with a distinct blue-collar vibes is generally something I’m really on board with – The Gaslight Anthem are one of my favourite bands of all time after all – but I’m not 100% sold on The Menzingers in this style. The song is typically nostalgic Menzos and isn’t bad overall but this is one that hasn’t overly grabbed me… yet.

It’s the fourth song of Hello Exile before we get to hear a ‘Tom May song’ but it’s worth the wait. Last To Know is slow paced but not soft, with pounding drums and chunky distorted guitars from the very start. As ever with songs written by Tom, the lyrics are far more cryptic that Greg’s. Take the opening lines for example – when Tom sings ‘Jesus Christ be damned, I held the dagger in my hand, I killed another man.’, I don’t think he’s singing in first person! I really enjoyed the guitar work on the track, particularly the solo towards the end with some subtle woah-ohs thrown in for good measure. A big reverby section at the very end of song gets louder and louder before throwing us into track number five. It’s a great transition into the stop-start guitars (possibly the two guitars taking it in turn to play different parts) of Strangers Forever. When the verse hits, it’s mid-tempo and contemplative with those stop-start guitars holding your attention as they lead into the chorus – ‘Maybe it's for the better we both stay strangers forever, Maybe it's for the best we pretend like we never met, Forget everything that we've ever known, Maybe it's for the better we both stay strangers forever, Strangers forever…’. There’s no denying that this another hugely singalong-able Menzingers anthem and I particularly enjoy the visuals of being stranded on a deserted island that appear throughout the verses of the song. Strangers Forever is about feeling like you don’t completely know someone despite seemingly having been very close to them, seemingly forever. My first thoughts when I heard the sixth song, Hello Exile, was why isn’t think the album’s closing track? Not only is it the title track, so that would nicely bring things full circle, but it’s slow and feels akin to Freedom Bridge or When You Died, aka. the slow album closer. When I got over that however, I do really quite like this song – and it is the end of Side A on the vinyl so that’s something. Hello Exile is stripped back and almost feels acoustic in its delivery although the rhythm section is subtly there throughout the song. It feels wonderfully wistful and romantic. I guess that doesn’t sound very punk but I think we have to admit that The Menzingers now transcend punk. I’m okay with that, hopefully you are too.

Portland opens the second half of the album. Relatively upbeat and anthemic from the outset, the pounding drums and melodic guitars will immediately have the listener’s attention after the softer tones of Hello Exile. In the song, which is a relatively short one by Menzingers current standards, Tom sings of not being able to change the past and consequently not being the same person he was in the past. The chorus is pleasantly repetitive and will no doubt find itself lodged in your head but it was the second verse that really stood out to me – ‘You wake up shaking in the middle of the night, A voice from the past back looking for a fight, Seize your sorrow, breathe with me, The pause between is all we need, They say it hurts ’till it doesn’t, You said "the future is unwritten, let the past stay in the past.”’ A nice nod to Joe Strummer there, who I know Tom May is a huge admirer of. After Portland we have Strain Your Memory. Now, this is a song that I should love. It’s got a bit more pace to it from the outset, Greg’s vocals have a lovely twang to them, it’s packed with heart-wrenching emotion and, of course, it’s begging to be sung along to. You can tell there’s a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? Well, the reason I can’t bring myself to ‘love’ Strain Your Memory is that I feel like it reminds me a little too much of Your Wild Years from After The Party. Your Wild Years is brilliant and, to me at least, Strain Your Memory feels like it references similar themes a bit too much. However, I bet I’ll still scream every word back at the band if (when) I see them play it live. By contrast to my feelings about Strain Your Memory, I simply cannot get enough of track number nine on Hello Exile. I Can’t Stop Drinking is long – clocking in at 5:10, it is actually their longest ever song (by three seconds). It’s also very slow, incredibly dark and so melancholic that it feels almost twisted – all of which is strangely compelling. There’s so much pain in Greg’s vocals as he sings about, well basically, coming to terms with alcohol addiction. For a band that has a lot of songs about partying and just drinking in general, this song feels like quite a surprise. Musically, the only song in their back catalogue that I would compare this to is Transient Love from Rented World (which was previously their longest song). I can’t imagine Transient Love or I Can’t Stop Drinking are fan favourites but I absolute love both of them.

Strawberry Mansion passed me by on my first few listens of Hello Exile, I neither loved it nor disliked it. However, when I was reading the lyric sheet whilst listening to the vinyl for the first time I was suddenly like ‘Shit, is this song about climate change?’ – the line ‘Exiled to an island of plastic’ in particular. Suddenly I saw The Menzingers, and Tom May particularly as this is a song he has written, in a new light. In reflection, after that, I decided that it’s probably not strictly about climate change specifically so much as about the state of the current world we live in in general. There’s no denying that the song is powerful lyrically – ‘Set a course for the sun, To bittersweet oblivion, The time has come, the rain has gone, Back to hell where we belong.’ – as well as musically and it packs a punch in both regards. Definitely one of Hello Exile’s highlights. The penultimate song, London Drugs, wastes no time in getting going and quickly matches the pace of Strawberry Mansion. Interestingly, the song opens with the chorus which also follows the same melody as the guitar parts. It’s fairly simple and it is catchy, that’s for sure. Do I like it? I’m not so sure, although I did enjoy the little reference to The Pogues in the opening of the first verse – ‘On a rainy night in Soho, The wind was whistling all its charms’. The themes of the song are perhaps similar to I Can’t Stop Drinking but I just don’t connect with the delivery of London Drugs in the same way. It certainly doesn’t have the same impact as fellow penultimate song After The Party had on the album of the same name but then that is one of the very best Menzingers songs of all time! I already established earlier in this review that I like my Menzingers albums to end with one big yet slow and melancholic song. Farewell Youth is the song that has to fulfill that task on Hello Exile and, while its not drenched in melancholy, I guess it kind of fits the slow part of my expectations. It’s a typical getting older and looking back on your youth (saying farewell to it) style song that The Menzingers do well. It’s nothing new exactly and I don’t really think this song is as good as others in the band’s back catalogue…

It feels a bit of a shame to end my review of Hello Exile on a more negative note as there are some songs on this album that I really, really like. Unfortunately there’s also a few too many songs that either don’t do anything for me or just feel a bit average. It’s not that Hello Exile is a bad album, it’s just that The Menzingers set the bar so high with their previous releases that it was always going to be tricky to come close with this one.

If you like the band already, you’ll probably like this album – after all, it does sound like The Menzingers playing The Menzingers songs. If you’re interested in checking the band out having never listen to them before however, I’d enthusiastically suggest you listen to On The Impossible Past and After The Party instead.

Hello Exile is available now, from all the places that you usually get your music from, and you can like The Menzingers on Facebook here – let’s face it, if you’ve read this far, you probably already do ‘like’ them.

This review was written by Emma Prew.

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