There are punk bands, and then there are punk bands’ punk bands. The Menzingers belong in the latter category — over the course of six albums released in the past decade, including their excellent forthcoming LP, After The Party which comes out this Friday, 2/3, the Philadelphia quartet have forged a strong following among punk fans as well as their fellow musicians. On numerous occasions while interviewing punk groups, I’ve heard the Menzingers name-checked as one of the scene’s most consistent recording acts and most galvanizing live bands.
Outside of punk circles, however, the Menzingers remain largely unknown. But there’s reason to think that might soon change. The invisible line that exists between the punk and indie-rock worlds has been breached in recent years by groups like the Hotelier, Pup, and Joyce Manor, all of whom have recently garnered positive press from indie music sites after being largely ignored in the past. Will the Menzingers be the latest band to cross this pointlessly large divide? Singer-guitarist Greg Barnett, who shares songwriting duties in the Menzingers with fellow guitarist Tom May, doesn’t seem optimistic.
“People in indie-rock circles write off our band because we’re immediately thought of as another punk band,” Barnett says in a phone interview from the Menzingers’ home base in Philadelphia. “We’re never going to be [well-regarded] in these pretentious indie scenes. It’s just who we are. That’s the kind of people that we are, the kind of shows that we go to, we just hang out with open-minded people. And if there are people or critics who write us off that quickly, about something as f*cking dumb as the kind of bands that we play with, I guess we never really wanted them as fans anyway.”
Based on the musical merits of After The Party, The Menzingers certainly ought to be the new favorite band for anyone who appreciates songs that marry big, anthemic rock hooks to smartly observed, story-oriented lyrics. On older albums such as 2012’s On The Impossible Past, Barnett and May proved adept at mythologizing the milieu of the punk underground with cinematic flourishes fleshed out by bassist Eric Keen and drummer Joe Godino. Standout track “Gates,” for instance, has the arc of a classic coming-of-age movie — Barnett paints vivid scenes about getting drunk backstage at a Lion’s Club show, falling in love during the after-party at an all-night diner, and then ending the night by getting busted in the parking lot of a CVS.
On After The Party, The Menzingers have created nothing less than a song cycle about the band’s life up until now, a reflective act inspired by the members all hovering around the age of 30, the unofficial gateway to adulthood. (Barnett is 29, and his bandmates are about two years older.) The characters in the Menzingers’ latest songs no longer have the freedom to hang out all night outside of convenience stores — Barnett and May now write about young men like themselves who are trying to put their hard-partying ways behind them, in order to preserve a more fulfilling existence as partners in long-term relationships.
But growing up is never easy, and the weariness that inevitably accompanies taking on adult responsibility permeates After The Party. In “Lookers,” an old photograph marks the distance between a carefree past and an uncertain future. In “Wings (Your Wild Years),” the protagonist lies awake at night, worried that he won’t be able to be the partner that his girlfriend deserves. One of the best character sketches occurs in the album-closing “Livin’ Ain’t Easy,” in which a touring musician goes back on the road to escape dire financial straits at home. In the chorus, Barnett closes with a metaphor for an unsettled life worthy of John Prine: “Continental breakfast in the lobby / But they’re always out of coffee.”
Fortunately, the Menzingers have set these fraught tales to the most rousing music of the band’s career. With assistance from producer Will Yip — the in-demand punk producer who has become synonymous with sumptuous guitar-driven records due to his work with Title Fight, Balance and Composure, and mewithoutYou — the Menzingers have never sounded as powerful as they do on After The Party, pumping up their bar-ready pop-punk with arena-rock heft.