Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and The Menzingers evoke it aggressively on their new album, After the Party. Everything from the cover art to the album title conjures memories of good times gone by, and the band even kicks things off with a chorus of “where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over?” But lead singers and songwriters Greg Barnett and Tom May are after something more than a simple, “Hey, remember the good ol’ days?” Instead, their songs aim to capture the fragmented nature of memory to paint a portrait of thirtysomething life and love, all wrapped up in a punk-rock package perfect for those who aren’t ready to stumble home from the party just yet.
Musically, the album takes most of its cues from Springsteen-indebted punk bands like The Gaslight Anthem, with hard-charging guitars, classic rock-inspired leads, and steady drums. But early-2000s emo and pop-punk also make their presence felt. The guitar riff in “Midwestern States” bears traces of Blink-182’s DNA and suggests what might have happened if that band had matured along with its listeners, while “Thick as Thieves” kicks off with the kind of too-clever-for-its-own-good poetry (“I held up a liquor store demanding top-shelf metaphors”) that has long been Fall Out Boy’s stock in trade. However, The Menzingers’ gift for melody and way with a hook transcend the fact that there really isn’t anything new going on here. The choruses of “Lookers,” “Midwestern States,” and “Your Wild Years” are serious earworms, and the pithy mission statements of “Tellin’ Lies” and “Charlie’s Army” are sure to inspire raucous singalongs at many, many live shows to come.
But the album’s real strength is its lyrics, with Barnett and May buying in fully to the old aphorism “show, don’t tell.” The title track begins with a series of images that, while seemingly unrelated, reveal a detailed picture of the relationship on display. (“Coffee grounds and coffee cups, your silhouette in high top sneakers, and hardcore from laptop speakers.”) Meanwhile, “Bad Catholics” captures a church picnic’s strange duality of virtue and vice in just three lines. (“I watch a mother run around in a panic, chasing a kid with his orange soda mustache, while his father’s by the gambling wheel.”) The vivid imagery captures the way that small details often become the things we remember most about life-changing events, and it’s these details that orient us as the track list jumps from moment to moment, often out of chronological order.
“Lookers” begins the saga of “Julie from the Wonder Bar” long after the narrator’s relationship with her has ended, with a photograph leading to a flood of memories. It continues in “Charlie’s Army,” seemingly situated toward the start of the relationship, with the narrator standing up to her ex-boyfriend. (“Tell your men I ain’t afraid to die if loving Julie is a capital crime.”) “Your Wild Years” more subtly calls Julie by name (“A little Irish in your blood, a little Polish in your name”) to provide a snapshot of the relationship’s contented but uneasy middle period, seeing shows at The Stone Pony, visiting her family in Massachusetts, and worrying about the future. Other tracks are similarly linked in more understated ways, such as shared nicknames (the use of darling in “Black Mass” and “Bad Catholics”), favorite locations (Asbury Park, NJ, landmarks The Stone Pony and Wonder Bar in “Your Wild Years” and “Lookers”), and repeated phrases (versions of “after the party, it’s me and you” on “Midwestern States,” “Charlie’s Army,” and “After the Party”). The effect mirrors the rush of nostalgia, with one small detail bringing an entirely different memory crashing back, and paints a strikingly robust and affectionate portrait of the album’s cast of characters. In fact, one of After the Party’s greatest joys is poring over the lyric sheet to discover new connections, itself a practice seemingly lost to the ages.
After the Party takes a tried-and-true musical formula, nostalgia-based pop-punk, and elevates it to an evocative new level that rewards multiple listens and a deep dive into the lyrics. If you love modern emo and pop-punk bands like Joyce Manor or The Hotelier, you’ll find something to like here right away. Those more skeptical of the “emo revival” might walk away unimpressed at first, but I strongly recommend you give it an extra spin or two to let its charms sink in. You might be surprised.
“Your Wild Years”