Review Summary: Viva Les Hommes
So, rock died, again
, and The Men are going to save it--so those hyping Open Your Heart
would have you believe. Of course, declaring rock “dead” is a bit dramatic and is pretty much never true (though as a critic, I have to tell you that it feels great!), so we have to call into question the statement’s second clause: what do bands like The Men (and there hasn’t been a shortage of late; along with bands like Iceage, Sex Church, and seemingly every band Sacred Bones releases, The Men have been spearheading a movement that’s pounding punk back into cultural consciousness) bring to the table that has been so absent to cause this kind of apocalyptic fervor?
The Brooklyn quartet’s impeccable Leave Home
ended 2011 as a huge critical success, one of a couple trendy picks from hardcore sitting awkwardly next to the likes of Bon Iver and The Weeknd on many an indie-tastemaker’s best-of-2011. At the time it looked almost like another case of noisy bands with niche-audiences getting thrown a spot in the middle of a hegemonic publication’s top-whatever so the list has a semblance of legitimacy, but unlike, say, black-metal, this whole punk-revival thing hasn’t faded docilely back into obscurity. Instead, it’s grown into a culturally defining moment, and it’s unwittingly defined by bands like The Men, which gives Open Your Heart
an air of supercharged importance: where is this moment headed?
You can find this kind of pressure in many a discussion concerning Open Your Heart
, and while that narrative is compelling, it's almost a little counter-intuitive. It blows up the importance of something without any greater aspiration than to be a great rock and roll record, which is an immensely pleasing (and totally realized) ambition in itself. Let’s get this out of the way now: the first time, it’s difficult to listen to Open Your Heart
and not miss the band that reveled in balls-out chaos with as much anarchic glee as The Men did on Leave Home
. They’ve reeled themselves in a bit, opting to be less about the sonic assault and more about melodies and phrases. So, accessibility: the most striking aspect of Open Your Heart
is how, well, easy
it is to listen to. It isn’t mixed like a punch to the gut, for one thing. With everything dialed back a notch, much more texture comes through, and the record’s raucous, earnest tone gives the full listen the feel of a basement show. The energy they seethed as assaultive punks they’ve here channeled into a positive force, creating remarkably straightforward rock n’ roll with utter devotion to the integrity of their songs.
The commitment to some of the ideas that made it onto Open Your Heart
suggests a totally organic creative process; these songs had
to be this
way. The Men have never kept one skin for an entire record, and though the hodgepodge of styles on Open Your Heart
is impressively varied, they’re organized by an internal logic that I can best describe as a musician’s intuition. The Men are notorious rock appropriators--Leave Home
practically begged to be put in conversation with The Ramones--and here, taking on the early '90s with total zeal, their audible geekery leads them to indulge any and all of their ideas for maximum effect. So opener “Turn It Around” kicks like a Japandroids jam, all straight ahead guitars and gang vocals, but the floor it shares with “Animal” is soon ceded to the boozy post rocker “Country Song,” which is as debauch a five minutes as its title suggests. What grows out of that is a middle section of hazy, droning anthems that exemplify how to nick '90s alternative (Cloud Nothings could take notes), and then there’s “Candy,” a twangy pop song that throws the pacing for a loop, the sort of anti-“L.A.D.O.C.H.” for a mellower Men. “Candy” is the type of divisive gambit that can define a record: is it too much that the album basically pauses for a steel-guitar-featuring, lyrically well-tread Wilco fascimile? Or is it an endearing embodiment of the earnestness that buoys the entire record?
I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t flipped between both opinions, but as is certainly obvious by now, I’ve settled on the latter. Open Your Heart
is simply too consistently awesome to deny for that kind of minutia. The craftsmanship on this record, particularly on the more sprawling tracks like “Oscillation” and “Ex-Dreams” is nothing short of admirable, and the energy throughout is undeniable. It’s true that the record is a bit wonkily paced and isn’t very lyrically deep, but these are imperfections that make it sort of wonderful. Through their rise, The Men have never felt loftier than a little band making the best music they can from their garage, a band whose merit comes from incessant touring and shared identity with their fan base instead of anything heady. A song like “Please Don’t Go Away” has little going for it in terms of message, but by virtue of its guitars, hooks, and infectious drive, it becomes something visceral and personal, a shared moment between musician and audience where they need to do nothing but rock for us to rock out.
This is what makes this “punk moment” thing irrelevant, at least for this record: The Men seem completely disinterested in it. Their music is nothing but a pure extension of themselves, a bunch of rock songs played by punk nerds for a crowd close enough to spit at. Which I guess is exactly what Open Your Heart
was supposed to be and yet somehow I feel like there’ll be a healthy contingent of “letdown” callers because the album simply doesn’t have the political weight it was assigned. This is something of a shame; those people will be missing a phenomenal record by a band at a creative peak that’s as fully realized and as utterly terrific as the myriad other peaks they’ve hit during their brief but already illustrious career. I’ll take that any day over Rock Jesus.