When people write about great achievements, they like to use the word ‘awe’. In the face of majesty, it can be the perfect word to accompany a dropping jaw or gasp. And I readily admit, using it to describe a punk rock album feels cheap, exploitative, and overexcited. The epitome of bad journalism. But here I am, writing words that might very well be laughed off as hyperbole a week later.
The Menzingers’ On The Impossible Past is awe inspiring.
This is The Menzingers refining perfection; for their Epitaph debut is not only the band’s best album to date, it’s a release destined to be remembered as a modern classic.
But back in 2010, Chamberlain Waits was that release. Although it was their second album, for many it’d be their first introduction to the Pennsylvania punks. While stylistically similar, the two albums contrast in several apparent ways. The production is the most noticeable. On The Impossible Past features a stronger mix with a lot of focus cast on the lead guitar. As odd as it is for punk rock, the decision strengthens the melodic presence on a lot of the songs. Speaking of, the guitars are bassy and deep, lower and meaner sounding than those on Chamberlain Waits; being strummed from the same place the lyrics are pulled. The drums follow suit, pounding out heavy rhythms that feel like the punctuation to a suicide note. The greatest single improvement is the amped up intensity that makes their previous work feel limp in comparison. Interestingly, the title track is the most stylistically different. Unlike the majority of the album, it displays less subtle folk influences, opting instead to slow things down entirely. The guitar is also an oddity, featuring a chorus effect that feels completely out of place in punk. But that said, the continuation of the effect into the song “Nice Things” makes it feel aesthetically calculated, and at the end of the day the two songs are better for the experimentation.
Throughout the record, a sense of downbeat Americana pervades and provides the atmosphere with noir shading. The imagery on this album isn’t that of children on swing sets, and golden fields of grain. We travel through an America, where feeling American is a once in a lifetime occurrence. On The Impossible Past is a concept album, which is summed up with meta panache in “Burn After Writing”: “Here’s to you, the same chords that I stole from a song that I once heard, the same melody I borrowed from the void. I’d rather observe than structure a narrative. The characters are thin, the plot does not develop. It ends where it begins.” While poetic, it also acknowledges, thereby justifying, the limitations of a concept album.
The Menzingers have never had any problems writing catchy anthems, and On The Impossible Past solidifies that statement. The chorus to “The Obituaries” has been bouncing around my head since my first listen, it’s extremely simple wording (“I will fuck this up. I fucking know it.) doesn’t make it any easier to shake. But to tell the truth, every other song on the album gives it competition. This is melodic punk at its best, and singers Tom May and Greg Barnett have the pipes to carry it, whether it be the softer passages of the title track, the throat shredding screams of “Ava House,” or the close harmonies of “Burn After Writing.” Their versatility allows for everything within the bounds of punk and beyond, and the music is better for it.
Music as an art form is an interesting thing. Especially in the digital age, where an artist’s due is often at battle with the artist’s art being readily available through illegal means; one of the most common validations I’ve heard is that music itself isn’t concrete, therefore has no inherent value. While I don’t agree with this, it’s an opinion that deserves discussion. Listening to On The Impossible Past, what first struck me was how physical and weighty the music felt. The notes flowed from my speakers and seemed to just hang in the air, along with their accompanied refrains. And then from there, it took hold of my mind, and I found myself describing my own life and experiences in someone else’s words. Of course, inevitably, I recreated poor imitations of these blasts of noise as I showered. The album’s described ‘weightiness’ results from an intersection of production and songwriting, but to call it valueless because of it’s lack of physical dimension is dismissed with every urge to sing-a-long. Without a doubt, On The Impossible Past is a reminder that music is valuable.
From beginning to end, The Menzingers’ On The Impossible Past is a triumph. It’s a release that will not only cement the band as one of punk’s most talented, it will also be the measure for all their future work. Passionate, honest, and musically adept, The Menzingers have crafted a great achievement. And yes, it’s awe inspiring.