Review Summary: Sometimes, life works out well. For everyone else, there's "revisionist history."
In a fit of premature triumphalism in the early ‘90s, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the so-called “end of history” and victory of liberal democracy, an understandable claim for a Reagan adviser to make but a myopic one for any self-respecting scholar. Almost three decades later, Greg Barnett is singing about being “on the lonely end of history,” deriding the “crime scene of new penthouses next to tents in the streets,” the most enduring image of the neoliberal economics championed by people like Fukuyama. The Menzingers have always written rock songs about emptiness that nonetheless feel pregnant with deeper meaning. Hello Exile
is an even more obvious turn toward a materialist form of songwriting that grounds the depressing realities of everyday life within a wider historical context.
That is not to say that The Menzingers are suddenly writing missives about redistributive policies, but you could see it even a decade ago in the title of their album Chamberlain Waits
, conjuring a Pennsylvania arms manufacturing plant patiently waiting to devour an increasingly complacent youth that has given up idealism for the necessity of stable work. As “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” shows, that tradeoff is the expected endpoint of youth. You might be against the factory, but you’ll work there because there’s no other choice. And when your life falls apart around you, when you “can’t stop drinking,” like Barnett, you’ll think the problem is within yourself rather than being a symptom of larger systemic ills.
You can even hear it in Will Yip’s oft-derided production choices. Greg and Tom sometimes sound like they’re singing in one room while the band plays in another. In “Strawberry Mansion”, there is even a corny effects moment where Yip cranks the volume knob on Tom’s voice in the bridge, as if he decided to join them halfway through the song. These choices are strange, but the sonic alienation underpins the literal and metaphorical barriers in the lyrics, especially Barnett’s. He’s still sleeping on the couch, wondering why his girlfriend doesn’t leave him for someone more fitting. Yet, deep down, he knows the answer: she feels the same emptiness that he does, only it manifests in a different way. In the end, they’ll “leave it broke.”
is full of idealized versions of Menzingers songs, a little slower than usual but still containing all the sonic and lyrical hallmarks that we’ve come to expect. “I was getting fu
cked up with a high school friend, wondering where all the good times went,” would be a perfect encapsulation of the band’s career if not for “Farewell Youth”, the ultimate idealized Menzingers song. “I’m afraid I hardly got to know you,” Barnett laments to the youth he’s been endlessly singing about for over a decade, turning the disheartening goodbye into a rousing chant. Growing up means living a life full of contradictions, which is why he can advise us to not “let the overwhelming sorrow shred all hopes of tomorrow” in one song, then turn around and sing that “tomorrow is out of luck” in another. On any given day, it is up to us to decide which is false and which is true.