This review was originally published on AbsolutePunk.net on June 5th, 2011. It’s been ported to Chorus.fm exactly as it existed the day it was published.
I’ve been having a horrible time
Pulling myself together.
I’ve been closing my eyes to find
The old familiar failures.
I’ve been closing my eyes to find
Why all good things should fall apart.
So begins The Menzingersʼ latest record, the sweeping, driven, masterful On the Impossible Past. Those lyrics come from the opening (and essentially introductory) “Good Things,” a short song that starts calm before the guitars and vocals tumble into an avalanche of power. As we have come to expect from the band, which is following the phenomenal Chamberlain Waits, anthemic sing-alongs provide a vessel for thought-provoking lyrics.
But it really is not enough to describe On the Impossible Past with your typical album review language. The jargon and the adjectives that we reviewers are notorious for rotating don’t do a record like this justice. Not at all. On the Impossible Past is the sort of rarefied album that doesn’t come along often; it’s the type of record that, even only after a month of listening, I know will become regarded as a treasure. Riddled with thematic landscapes, On the Impossible Past presents a story, but it’s such a compelling, poetic and well-told story that by the time it ends, I need to hear it again. Right after listening to the album, I want to hear about the American muscle cars, the waitresses working at the diners, the late-night drives, the drunken escapades, the passion and dead-end-liness of everyday living, the good things and the nice things, I want to hear about all of these things all over again.
It’s a Midwestern punk rock album written by a Pennsylvania punk rock band, but it transcends genres. Genres don’t matter when you sing along to the opening lines of “Burn After Writing”:
Here’s to you, the same chords that I stole
From a song that I once heard;
The same melody I borrowed from the void.
I’d rather observe than structure a narrative.
The characters are thin; the plot does not develop.
It ends where it begins.
Want to talk about your literary devices? The opening lines of this second track summarize the entire record in a clever way, as with so many repeating themes, you can play this album on repeat and essentially give yourself a never-ending story that never reaches any conclusions. The story doesn’t really get going, however, until the first two released songs, “The Obituaries” and “Gates.” Standing as polar opposites to each other, the former is a rough-around-the-edges, drunken rally of a pop-punk track while the latter is a toned-down, thought-out masterpiece of songwriting. That isn’t to say one is better than the other; when you belt out “I will fuck this up / I fucking know it,” over and over and over again in “The Obituaries,” you can’t tell me that moments like this exist often in music. Someone in The Menzingers must have fucked up really bad; we’ve all fucked up pretty bad at some point. Singing about it couldn’t hurt. The brilliance of “Gates” comes in the fact that it immediately follows such a blunt song, and its arpeggiated power chords signal to the listener that not everything has to be a race.
It’s not hard to fall for a waitress when you both smoke the same cigarettes.
You’ll get seated as diners or lovers, you’ll get the check as friends for the better.
You’ll carve your names into the Paupack Cliffs just to read them when you get old enough to know that happiness is just a moment.
So I’m marching up to your gates today to throw my lonely soul away,
Cause I don’t need; it you can take it back.
As often happens throughout the record, The Menzingers tell us about specific situations; I don’t know where in the world the Paupack Cliffs are or what they look like, but I’ll be damned if I won’t still appreciate a line like “…when you get old enough to know that happiness is just a moment” in another 15 years when I’ve stopped caring about the things I care about right now.
On the Impossible Past certainly has its high points, and the climax of the record proves to be in the middle. It comes in the form of a heavy and consistent dose of trading off between furious, passion-filled parts and slower, intimate parts. “Ava House” shows us both of these, while the explosive “Sun Hotel” and “Mexican Guitars” provide the types of guitar riffs that make you feel good whether they’re being played in a car, on a turntable or in shitty earbuds. “I’m pretty sure this corner of the world is the loneliest corner in the whole world” directly contrasts painful cries of, “I will leave you alone and you will leave me alone” during “Sun Hotel,” while “Mexican Guitars” rings home as a tale of lost friendship and wanting to get out of a dead town.
What stands out about this album is that The Menzingers have stepped into a whole new arena in terms of musicianship. On the Impossible Past is built punk-first, pop-second, but the slower songs give off a depth unparalleled by earlier work. Sounding like The Gaslight Anthem at times isn’t a bad thing, and with such a rich storytelling aspect to the lyricism, this is much, much more than an album to throw on the record player when you’re having a few beers.
“Casey” is my personal favorite on the album, not just because it has the best chorus on the record, but because the imagery is something I cannot get enough of:
Before the plug was pulled, the fire burned out
And all the parties grew bored.
You waited tables and I waited for your shift breaks.
Gin and Casey used to dance inside of me,
And I know I sound like a broken record every time I open my mouth.
I want to wander around the city with you again,
Like when you waited tables and I waited for your shift breaks.
Me and Casey used to get drunk before we did the dishes every evening;
Me and Casey used to get high and listen to our boredom,
Because it was so much easier than dealing with everything.
So Casey, tell me when you’re ready I’m all packed to go,
To search for that old place we found forever ago.
We can take my car, Casey, she’s still got the spirit.
We could live and no longer just have to hear it.
I think it’s a record like On the Impossible Past – a record that, despite the fact that I review albums every week, I just can’t seem to fully explain my adoration of – that brings everything back to earth. Why do I love these scenes with waitresses and driving around aimlessly so much? I’ve driven around aimlessly before, but I’ve never even dated a waitress. Does it make sense? Does it have to?
It’s about the music; it’s about the lyrics; it’s about how a record makes you feel, when you listen to it five times a day for an entire month, but even though you’ve already memorized all the words, it still feels new. This is the kind of record that reminds us why we love music; this is the kind of record that an album reviewer waits a long time to review. When there is nothing bad to say because whatever mistakes were made weren’t important enough to stand out. Sometimes you hear an album, inherent with its own flaws, that still manages to be all but perfect.
The Menzingers have moved past whatever they used to be. Once a punk rock group amongst a community of punk rock groups, On the Impossible Past has transformed them into a band of great American storytellers that not only deserve to be mentioned along with the best in the scene, but deserve your actual, undivided attention. This isn’t an album that should be listened to while you’re on Facebook in the background; this is an album that should have come out decades ago, before music would leak a month before its release date, so we could all sit at the foot of our beds and read along with the lyrics in the insert while we watched the record spin on our turntables. This is something that has no expiration date.