The Menzingers are in the midst of a streak which has become exceedingly rare. To use some allegories from the world outside of the music scene, they are in the midst of a Joe DiMaggio-esque 56-game hitting streak or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidential election streak. Releasing three straight critically acclaimed punk albums in a 4 year span is something that almost no modern punk band has been able to accomplish. Even The Menzingers’ contemporaries in The Gaslight Anthem fell victim to critical fatigue with American Slang (an album that received mixed reviews upon its release). Yet, hot off the heels of their breakthrough record Chamberlain Waits in 2010, The Menzingers released one of the best-written albums punk of the 21st century in On The Impossible Past in 2012. Would they crack under the pressure of having to follow-up what would be many other bands’ magnum opus, or could they respond with another classic album?
Thankfully, the band was able to craft a record that does not strive to recreate its predecessor’s success. The band’s newest record, Rented World feels inventive and fresh, while at the same time inviting old fans to continue on the journey. On The Impossible Past was an album deeply rooted in nostalgia. Besides the obvious connection that the title poses, the album seemed world-weary longing for the way things used to be, a deep regret for past mistakes and, most importantly a fear of the future (“I will fuck this up, I fucking know it”). In that respect, much of the subject matter of Rented World should feel familiar to fans of the band.
The remorse found on On The Impossible Past is still a palpable driving force here, especially on the album opening track, “I Don’t Want To Be an Asshole Anymore.” The album opens with a guitar wail and vocalist Greg Barnett howling, “Last Friday night I wasn’t me, I was a still life trapped in eternity/ I was the focal point out of focus, out of ink.” This metaphor he draws to compare his life to art sets up “Asshole” as the spiritual successor to On The Impossible Past’s “Burn After Writing” (“I’d rather observe than structure a narrative/ the plot does not develop, it ends where it begins”)- and the comparisons don’t end there. Both songs find the vocalist contemplating what he has lost and considering how things could’ve been different. “I won’t pry no more, over the people that you’re hanging with/ you’re the only lover that I’ve ever missed, ever been hopelessly in love with. Look at this tangle of thorns, I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore,” Barnett begs as the song comes to close, and it’s as if the listener has been given a glimpse into his fractured psyche.
The heartbroken pleading that characterizes the song is the first of several variations on the same theme that present themselves on Rented World. The best of these “breakup songs” is the pulverizing “Nothing Feels Good Anymore,” in which Barnett compares himself to a fly buzzing around an ex-lover’s head. “But my darling, you just swat me away he says,” displaying the futility of attempting to reunite with the former flame. The highlight, however, is the song’s outro, in which metal riffs and punishing drum fills abound as Barnett shouts the song’s title over and over. It’s a rare cathartic moment of release on an album of mostly building self-loathing and introspection.
So much of what’s present here on Rented World should be formulaic and predictable. Even the most well-written, literary lyrics present here tightrope the line between sentimental and sappy. There’s the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek send off to a former lover in “The Talk” (“Alright, I’m OK, we did it your way, I never loved you anyway”) or the stripped down acoustic closer pondering one’s mortality (the devastating “When You Died”). In the hands of a lesser band perhaps these played out tropes would feel stale, but The Menzingers are absolutely no lesser band. The enthusiasm and honesty that they display on even the most generic of song topics, for example “Where Your Heartache Exists”, is enough to convert detractors and make fans swoon. It’s nearly impossible to undermine the significance of pouring their heart out onto a recording, like the Menzingers do here on Rented World. When Barnett tells a girl, “I just kind of waited around for you /cause what else was I supposed to do?” it would be easy to roll your eyes, but he says it with such conviction that it’s impossible not to root for the guy.
That’s not to say that all of Rented World is a retread of the things we’ve seen before from The Menzingers. Perhaps greatest shift from a sonic standpoint is the increased focus on Joe Godino’s drumming. While Godino seemed content to take a backseat to the two-headed songwriting team of Barnett and Tom May on the band’s previous three records, on Rented World there seems to be a concerted effort to bring Wilson’s talents to the forefront. He seems as comfortable providing pace-making in the form of the punchy hi-hat rolls in “Asshole” and “Rodent” as he is laying down the entire aural backbone of “Transient Love.”
Speaking of “Transient Love,” that track, perhaps the biggest departure from the band’s previous work, is Rented World’s most pleasant surprise. The vocal restraint and simplicity of the arrangement in the song make it an absolute joy to listen to. It’s a pleasant “eye of the storm”-type track, sandwiched between the two Tom May burners “My Friend Kyle” and “The Talk.” Green-era R.E.M comes to mind immediately; “Transient Love” is as brooding and introspective as even the most pensive Michael Stipe song. It’s the longest song The Menzingers have ever produced, and they use that extra length to add an airy, atmospheric touch to the track with an extended instrumental intro. It’s a testament to the band’s songwriting ability that they are able to step so far out of their comfort zone and still produce a remarkable track.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the album’s clear standout track, lead single “In Remission”; a song which plays out like a deranged fusion of the neurotic cynicism of Weezer’s Pinkerton and the unfiltered vitality of a mid-80s Replacements album. The song, while full of biting one-liners (“Life’s a terminal illness in remission/ so I took the weight of it all,”) seems an inherent contradiction; youthful and ephemeral, while simultaneously world-weary and terrified of the future. It is the emphatic ending though, with the soon to be classic line, “If everyone needs a crutch, then I need a wheelchair, I need a reason to reason with you,” that lays the groundwork for “In Remission” to be one of The Menzingers’ best songs.
After the chaotic, climactic finish of “In Remission,” “When You Died” feels like more of an epilogue than an actual closing track. The sparse production and simple chord progression allow Barnett’s improved vocals and vulnerability to power the track. It’s the delivery of the first line of the chorus that is of particular interest to me though: “Where do people go when they die, how do you keep them alive?,” Barnett asks in almost lilting voice- a vocal delivery that echoes the frailty of life and how quickly it can be taken away. This technique, although difficult to notice at first, is one of many layers hidden underneath the deceptively simple closer, all of which allowed my impression of the track to improve on subsequent listens.
If Rented World has a “failing”- and I put failing in quotes because I think even the worst parts of this album have many redeeming qualities- it’s that The Menzingers have two main songwriters, Greg Barnett and Tom May. The former brought his A-game to the album, as 4-5 of his songs are among the best songs the band has ever put out, whereas the latter is just lucky to be in the same conversation. It’s not that the Tom May songs are necessarily that bad- “Sentimental Physics” is a really well-written metaphor about the creationism/evolution debate, and “The Talk” is a perfect pace-setter for the back-half of the album- it’s just that Barnett is just on such a higher level that it makes the May songs seem clichéd by comparison. However, if the main problem with an album is that one songwriter is too good, I think any band would take that criticism gladly. Rented World, like its predecessor, is one of the best written punk albums since at least The ’59 Sound from The Gaslight Anthem.
Bottom Line: If the things I’ve said above haven’t swayed you to give Rented World a listen, I honestly don’t know what will. If you don’t give it a shot, suit yourself, but just know you’re making a huge mistake.