The Menzingers were the first band I could truly say was my own. I was twenty-one when On the Impossible Past came out, and looking back, I’m not sure there was ever a better time to be that young. For myself and others, the Menzingers had just written an album that could be considered as monumental as Reinventing Axl Rose or Caution. And since then, they’ve toured endlessly and continued releasing quality albums. Sure, they’re not as fast and screamy as they used to be, but they’ve settled into a comfortable niche within the greater world of punk and indie, and more importantly, they occupy this space with consistently poignant songcraft.
Hello Exile follows up After the Party, which in a lot of ways, was as career-defining as On the Impossible Past. This makes for a challenging release, as how many great albums does any band have in them? What’s always impressed me about the Menzingers is how they’re able to crank out so many of these great songs, and really, Hello Exile is no different. The songwriting is there, just as before (maybe too much as before, actually), and the melodies are just as sticky. Is this album a masterpiece? Well, no. After the Party and On the Impossible Past still lay the best claim to that elusive victory, but Hello Exile is no slouch, and while it may be divisive, it still brings the heart and lyricism that its fans crave.
That being said, the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Hello Exile lay within its songwriting. The Menzingers have always been a songwriting-forward band, and as such, I think that’s a fair place to start, with both my praise and my criticism. Here, we have the band progressing into exciting new heights, and falling back onto old crutches. Opening song “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” is one of my favorites of the album and it’s also the punkiest. Which means, if you’re reading between the lines—that no, this is not the album where the Menzingers’ reclaim their title as a raw-throated punk rock group. The song itself is a driving force though and it’s nice to see the band react politically (“what kind of monster did our parents vote for?”). They’ve always been a thoughtful band, and they again prove that in spades, even dropping a line referencing totalitarian Vichy France. “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” continues a career-spanning tradition of opening their albums with absolute bangers.
“Anna” is an equally great song, but it’s also where the band begins to look a little exposed. Here, is a wonderful track about a long-distance relationship, featuring a helluva hook. But here, we start seeing the limited subject matter inherent in the Menzingers’ songwriting. With lyrical references to Nabokov in his back pocket, we’ve all grown accustomed to guitarist/singer Greg Barnett as a deep literary reader. I’m pretty sure I’ve even read an interview where he mentions wanting to tackle writing a novel. These are awesome aims for anyone, let alone the primary songwriter in a punk band. But all artists can fall into the trap of repeating themselves. We’ve seen far too many songs about growing up, being reckless in Bukowski-certified ways, and doomed relationships. If I were Barnett’s writing coach right now, I’d be telling him he needs to push himself into new perspectives and subject matter. He needs to take an inventory of his common tropes and start building beyond them. Because, right now, it’s okay—“Anna” is one of my favorite songs on the album. But how many more “Anna”’s can we take before we start seeing the dove hidden in his sleeve?
“High School Friend” trods-well on familiar notes of nostalgia as well, but it does so with a sense of purpose, setting up the album’s theme of growing up before your time. This is, in a way, a sequel album to After the Party, it’s thematic mate. “Hello Exile,” the title track, is actually one of the stranger tracks I’ve seen the Menzingers do in recent years, and because of that, it has grown on me as one of the highlights of the new album. It has a swanky, cocktails-in-first-class feel throughout its opening, growing into a bluesy, Americana drenched singalong. It’s one of the best songs on the album and features some of Barnett’s most vivid imagery to date. “Strain Your Memory” is probably the song that most fans will be wishing the band would write more of, and it’s easy to understand why. In an album of plaintive mid-tempo jams, this is the mid-album rager that’ll get bodies moving in the pit. Of course, as is standard, it comes with a melody that fits easily on the throat and tastes sweet on the tongue.
It’s not fair to paint Hello Exile as a riskless album though, because it does actually takes some large strides forward. “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is a great example of this. At five minutes and ten seconds, it’s the longest track on the album. I like that it challenges some of the Menzingers’ repeated imagery (“…and we drove back drunk through the busy city streets.”) with what is an ironically sober look at themselves. Greg Barnett is rightly lauded for his short story approach to songwriting, often taking his lyrics behind the eyes of another character. But, “I Can’t Stop Drinking” feels cutting, personal, and painful. I hope that both approaches survive into the band’s future, but it serves as a stark reminder of where all these pretty words are born.
“Farewell Youth” completes the album’s arc with its chorus, “I was always hanging out with the older kids.” It feels like the Menzingers closing a chapter on themselves. These guys are just a little bit older than me, so probably feeling pretty similar things as they’re entering their thirties. They’ve spent over a decade as the Menzingers, a single unit with no personnel changes. That’s an impressive feat, especially while staying grounded enough to keep their audience engaged with their heartfelt melancholy. “Farewell Youth” doesn’t feel sad though, and it echoes a sentiment from the album’s opener, where Barnett croons, “Oh, how do I steer my early 30’s/ Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40.” The keyword is steer. There is control present, an eagerness for the future that can’t quite eclipse what’s passed behind them. It’s bittersweet, but as this album closes a chapter, I’m interested in where the ship takes us next.
As so far, I’ve talked mostly about Barnett’s contributions to the album; these songs have come to define the sound of the band for many, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Tom May’s contributions to the album. He’s only got three songs on the album, but they’re three of the best he’s written, “Portland” being my personal highlight. I have mixed feelings here because I believe that the voice of a band is a difficult thing to navigate, because bands, by their very nature, are a collaborative art. But, because of the relative lack of Tom May’s songs, the cohesiveness of the album diminishes. There’s already a jolting difference in songcraft between the two writers (which I believe was at its finest point back in the OTIP days, as far as interplay and shared aims are concerned). One is nostalgic and wistful, carrying the band toward a more poetic direction. The other is sharp and declarative, the punkier heart of the band. I’d like to see these collaborate deeper in their compositions, combining their voices to do away with the notion of Greg-songs or Tom-songs, and just write Menzingers songs.
So, what else can I say about a new Menzingers album?
How about this—the biggest fuck up the Menzingers have committed is being good enough to become anyone’s favorite band. This is a review filled with nitpicks and suggestions, it gives praise and criticism to songs in equal breaths. Why? Because the Menzingers mean more to me than any other band, and with that affection, comes a sense of ownership. The Menzingers are my band. They’re the ones I learned to drink to, traveled hours to see, and became the go-to singalong for my group of friends. If all those sad-sack, Barnett-penned relationship songs have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t help but pick apart the things we love. Hello Exile shows the band stretching their limbs, ending an era with maturity and verve. It features some new tricks and also features some we’ve seen before. But for a band tied so much to so many personal times and places, I’m excited for a new sonic bookmark.
*This score is meaningless. Listen to the album.