The Menzingers – ‘Hello Exile’

By Tom Walsh

“What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?”, Greg Barnett asks, moments into The Menzingers’ latest edition of punching you right in the feels. Settle in, because the Philadelphia four-piece are going to once again effortlessly capture the zeitgeist at which their audience is currently scratching their head.

The Menzingers have spent a career dealing in wry nostalgia. The tales of young love where the basement shows in Pennsylvania would seem to last forever, the heartache of break-ups, the railing against the establishment, and the growing sense of a fading youth… For a generation of fans, it feels as though this band has been narrating every chapter of their own lives.

In Barnett’s words, 2017’s ‘After The Party’ was a “love letter to his twenties”, and it masterfully resonated with everyone who woke up and realised, “shit, I’m going to be 30 soon”. It was immaculate in its storytelling and hit every emotional branch as it fell from the top of a tree named ‘pending mid-life crisis’.

‘Hello Exile’ demonstrates that the Scranton-natives have not lost any of that magic. While ‘After The Party’ felt more of a celebration with doe-eyed nostalgia, though, there is a much darker tone to their latest record. It takes a dim look at the world we live in and, for the first time in the Menzingers’ recent career, their idealised version of Americana seems such a laughable concept.

Opening with the poetic ‘America (You’re Freaking Me Out)’, it encapsulates the struggle in Barnett’s own mind. While he opines, “lately I feel like I’m in puppet Vichy, France trying to teach the devil how to dance” – a reference to the Nazi puppet state set up after Germany’s invasion of France in World War II – he admits to waning hope in his homeland as he maintains “America, I love you but you’re freaking me out”.

This somewhat sombre opener, albeit wrapped in riff-laden pop punk, is juxtaposed by lead single and 24-carat Menzingers track ‘Anna’, a typical tale of calling back a friend to good old Philly. There are a number of these moments dotted across ‘Hello Exile’, such as the incredibly bitter-sweet ‘Strangers Forever’ and Tom May’s rasping voice screaming “bring the part of me you love back” on ‘Portland’.

All the while, however, this darker, frantic tone persists, like a panicking sense of how to comprehend what is going on. ‘Last To Know’ is a beautiful, foreboding track with May’s chilling line of “sacrificial children’s voices echo on and on”, which can sit a little uncomfortably with the America of 2019. It’s an incredibly powerful lyric, delivered with a reverence that is reminiscent of the inclusion of a speech from ‘The Great Dictator’ in one of their earliest songs ‘Cold Weather Gear’.

Where there isn’t exasperation with the world, there is brutal introspection, such as in ‘I Can’t Stop Drinking’, where Barnett tells a first-person tale of an alcoholic fumbling to explain their actions to their spouse. Rattling through the tired excuses, diving into masochism, and looking up through tear-stained eyes to someone who hopefully still cares. It is another bout of heartbreak that this band delivers effortlessly. 

And then, just when you think you’ve had enough, they throw another haymaker on ‘Farewell Youth’, which seems almost an acceptance that those carefree days are long gone.

While The Menzingers used ‘After The Party’ as the emotional cushion as you sail out of your twenties, ‘Hello Exile’ feels more like an expertly delivered piece of “what the fuck is going on?!”. We kissed goodbye to the innocence and rationality of a sane world a number of years ago, and The Menzingers are now ready to narrate our eventual downfall. As Barnett succinctly puts it in the agitated ‘Strain Your Memory’: “can you strain your memory back to a time, when trouble wasn’t always on our mind?” Maybe we can’t – but ‘Hello Exile’ will provide the soundtrack for whatever the future holds.

TOM WALSH

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