If you’ve read any amount of music journalism, the concept of artists “maturing” between albums should be fairly familiar. While sometimes it’s a relevant narrative, it’s occasionally used as a crutch. It can be the music-world equivalent of using “cozy” and “charming” descriptors in crummy apartment listings. For some reason, the passing of a couple years between records seems to afford musicians the perfect excuse to explain less-than-stellar results. Released a dullard of an album? “We evolved, man.” Went from glorious to boring us? “We kinda grew up over the last couple years, you know?”
In the case of the Menzingers though (who headline the all-ages Irenic on Sunday, March 12), the concept of maturing isn’t a cliched PR angle, it’s the God’s honest truth for a band on the back end of an impressive decade pumping out rock/punk anthems and nonstop touring -- and band members (singer/guitarists Greg Barnett and Tom May, bassist Eric Keen, and drummer Joe Gadino) who now find themselves a far cry from the rowdy 20-year-olds that started it all.
Their just-released fifth studio album, “After the Party” (out now via Epitaph Records), revels in full-on catharsis-via-power-chords mode from start to finish: The group didn’t use “growing up” as an excuse to start sucking -- rather, they’ve welcomed the theme with an album-long adios to reckless youth and the reluctant acceptance of adulthood.
“I think that your 20s will always be a time and a place for everybody to look back on this wild experiment of life where you were an adult, but you’re not really an adult,” Barnett told me over the phone one morning. “You have this carefree attitude. I think most people look back fondly on their 20s. But their 30s seem to be the place where you put all the pieces together and form something.”
The Philly-by-way-of-Scranton, Pennsylvania band (yes, the same Scranton that “The Office” put on the map) has always been able to churn out passionate heart-on-your-sleeve rock gems about obliterated relationships and drunken revelry, but the tone on “After the Party” suggests reflection now rather than deflection. There’s an encompassing, palpable sadness to the record -- whether via the lovelorn ‘50s-esque pop melody of “Livin’ Ain’t Easy” or the devastating lyrical perfection of songs like “Lookers” (“Lost in a picture frame / The way our bodies used to behave / The way they smiled in the moment / Before they permanently froze / But that was the old me and you / When we were both lookers”).
But when Barnett confesses “I toss and turn at four in the morning / Petrified of where our future is going / ‘Cause you’re the kind of girl that deserves the world / And I’m just the kind of guy that promises the world” to the foot-tapping pop strut of “Your Wild Years,” the crux of the album is laid bared like an exposed cadaver on a dissection table.
“As the album progresses, there’s a lot of love stories and falling-out-of-love stories, and by the time ‘Your Wild Years’ comes around, it’s the most mature of the adult relationship scenes,” Barnett explained. “It’s like, the idea is, ‘OK, now I really have to take this relationship as serious as possible,’ and I think a lot of what I’ve learned now is that taking relationships more seriously than I have in the past is how important family becomes. Making sure you’re there for your partner and realizing how much their family means to them and how much your family means to you and, you know, that’s kind of what that song is about. Maybe sometimes you don’t have all the money and you can’t afford a down payment on a house … but you can try to be a good person and be there for their family and things like that.
“But that’s definitely a new theme for us,” he said, laughing. “Destructive young relationship stories, I guess.”
Of course, fans and critics alike have responded to the new record and its bittersweet coming-of-age theme. While Barnett laughed rather sheepishly when I brought up all the acclaim they're receiving (“Honestly, it’s wild” he said), the album’s connection with longtime listeners makes sense.
“I think we’ve kind of aged with our fans,” he said. “A lot of our fans are hitting an age, a turning point in their lives. And in this album, it’s like we’re telling the entire story of our 20s, of the decade of us being in a band -- and, especially for people that have been listening to the band for a long time, it really latches on because there’s so many different scenes of where we were as a band, and who we were as people, and who we are today. I think people see that in themselves too. So it’s a really, really cool thing to be able to relate to people in that sense.”
The singer/guitarist also thinks there might be a little over-romanticizing going around too -- a point his father apparently likes to tease him about.
“My dad is always laughing at that. We got a review in the New York Times, and he’s just like, ‘Wow, you’re about to hit 30 years old and you think you’re old -- what a joke,’” Barnett said, laughing. “He just won’t let me live it down.”
But where exactly do the Menzingers go from here? While Barnett’s not totally sure, he’s confident it’ll be, at the very least, authentic.
“In two years, I’ll have a better idea when we’re in the thick of crafting songs. At this point, in my mind, I’ve maxed out my idea of what the band could be in this context … If we’re changing ourselves, we can’t really write about a lifestyle we don’t live anymore you know? I think this record is going to be an end to that chapter. Just because we’re hitting an age where we’re not as reckless as we were. I think the next record has to be taking a completely different approach and we’ll have to see where we are at that point.
“Or maybe,” he said, laughing, “we’ll be just as f---ing crazy.”