Lauren Theisen: Where are we gonna go now?

Sunday, February 19, 2017 - 4:04pm

The Menzingers aren’t the first band to make youthful music for those who aren’t so young anymore, but they’re probably the most up front about it. The very first chorus on their new album, After the Party, asks the question that looms over all of the next 12 tracks: “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?”

Usually, when rock bands get older, they get softer. Compare the unhinged-comp-lit-major bellowings on The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday with the tighter, more traditional and melodic work of that band’s last two albums. Look at The Clash recording “Should I Stay or Should I Go” only a few years after “White Riot.” Not only is it difficult to keep up youthful fury an entire career, but most long-standing punk bands also switch up their sounds because, eventually, loud and fast becomes too tight a box.

The Menzingers have bucked this seeming inevitability. After the Party is a clear turning point for the band, but it doesn’t feel like anything was lost in this evolution. The band plays a show in Detroit next week, and these new choruses should get the crowd jumping and shouting just as much as older beloved work. Songs like the title track, “Midwestern States,” “Bad Catholics” and “Lookers” all feature immediately memorable melodies, no-frills guitar work and unrelenting drumbeats, just like you would expect from The Menzingers. Meanwhile, the slight structural experimentations of “Charlie’s Army” and “House on Fire” emerge as standouts on later listens.

It’s clear, though, that the bandmembers have learned a thing or two since their breakthrough album On the Impossible Past. While the band has been singing about the passing of time ever since they started making music, the nostalgia on old Menzingers tracks felt aspirational and naïve, as though singer Greg Barnett was crafting  future memories that he anticipated looking back on. The images on classics like “Gates” and “Casey” are almost too expertly arranged, with cigarette-smoking waitresses flirting with hackey-sack playing stoners in a beautiful mural of Midwestern suburbia. Barnett seems to know exactly which words he needs to sing with his unpretty, garage-band voice to get all his fans reminiscing on their fondest moments of adolescence.

After the Party’s details feel lived in, rougher and truer to life. The opening track puts us in a clear age, a fixed point in time rather than a hazy, curated nostalgic landscape. And so an early reference to “On the Road,” that cliché symbol of young male adventure, doesn’t prompt eyerolls, because it ends up on an album next to lines about falling asleep to dumb shows on Netflix. Lyrics that doubt the value of a college diploma hit hard with a whole generation. A violent ex-boyfriend sparks real menace, because we know that in real life, we’re not guaranteed safety and happy endings. These aren’t inspiring narratives of romantic Midwest heroism, but songs of self-doubt and earnest reflection.

But what I’ve been trying to decipher most about After the Party is how universal it feels despite being written from the perspective of one definite age. Just as The Menzingers have crafted more specific songs with precise details, they also seem to have expanded their potential fanbase. Sure, it’s understandable that a youthful break-up anthem like “Gates” may only inspire passion among a crowd that spends its nights waiting for service at Steak ’n Shakes and drinking pitchers in bowling alleys, but then why would After the Party reach anyone who hasn’t just turned 30?

More bluntly, how am I, a 21 year-old senior in college, identifying with so much of this album? When I hear the couplet “Everybody wants to get famous / But you just wanna dance in a basement” I see the most vivid scenes of my friends at parties singing along to top-40 pop. “There’s beer left, so I think I’ll stay” is a line I’ve definitely heard before. “Waiting for your life to start then you die / Was your heart beating in the first place?” feels terrifyingly urgent no matter what your age.

The truth, I think, is that The Menzingers have managed to write an evergreen chorus and then sustained it for a whole album. In my head, I can easily hear Bruce Springsteen singing something like that first song: “Where am I gonna go now that my sixties are over?” Ten years from now, it would be no surprise if the band’s new album leads off with: “Where are we gonna go now that our thirties are over?” To me, when I listen, I actually hear: “Where am I gonna go now that my college is over?”

What The Menzingers really get right is that After the Party isn’t any kind of ending any more than your thirties and beyond are a mere epilogue to your twenties. What one discovers over the course of this record is that it’s almost ridiculous to worry so much about dividing life into such distinct decades. In reality, we slowly and unknowingly evolve and reinvent ourselves, keeping the good stuff and gradually shedding what no longer feels true. We move from one thing to the next, but rarely is anything truly “over” until the very end. After the party, there are usually just a few missed alarms and, if you’re lucky, a delicious breakfast.