The last time we heard from The Menzingers, they were fretting over getting older. “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” frontman Greg Barnett asked repeatedly on “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track from 2017’s After the Party. If that album had ended with its title track, Barnett would have had his answer (and the band could have feasibly had their happy ending). “After the party, it’s me and you.” The record proved to be a growing-up narrative that culminated in a love story—or so it seemed. But the last song on that record was actually “Livin’ Ain’t Easy,” where life was likened to a continental breakfast where they’re always out of coffee.
Hello Exile is essentially that line blown up into a widescreen, cinematic experience. The party is way past over, and so are your twenties. This time, youth and young adulthood have been replaced by the next chapter, and it’s one where things don’t seem quite as black and white as they used to. “How do I steer my early 30s?/Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40?/ Ain’t it a shame what we choose to ignore/What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?” Those are some of the first lines that Barnett sings on “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” Hello Exile’s disillusioned opening track. A lot of this record is about trying to pretend that you’re younger than you are, or trying to get back to those golden days of youth—back when you had no cares or responsibilities. Right off the bat, though, “America” tips the record’s hand, because how can you get back to that place of innocence when the whole nation seems to be going to hell? Later, on the terrific “Strain Your Memory,” Barnett pines after a girl with a simple proposition: “Can you strain your memory back to the times/When trouble wasn’t always on our minds?” It’s a nice thought, but it’s not always that easy.
There’s no way back to the used-to-bes, and this record seems to know it. The Menzingers have always been a nostalgic band. They are, to paraphrase the title of their most beloved album, a band preoccupied with the impossible past. But Hello Exile twists those nostalgic tendencies in new ways. In “High School Friend,” Barnett and an old buddy wax poetic about the past and about “raising hell in Wayne County/With a copper on our tail.” “I was getting fucked up with a high school friend/Wondering where all the good times went,” goes the chorus. On a cursory listen, the song seems to be a simple wistful look back. It’s like every beer you’ve ever had with a friend you haven’t seen in five or ten years: dominated by conversations about “that one time” or “that crazy night.” But listen closer and “High School Friend” turns into an indictment of the unreliable narratives we tell ourselves about our own memories. “There’s former you, there’s former me/We’re telling tales of revisionist history,” Barnett sings, before adding a frank aside: “I remember the days we couldn’t hardly wait to end.” Nostalgia is often a view tinted by rose-colored glasses. We remember the good times and forget the bad ones: the boredom, the mundanity, the high school angst, the tragedy. “High School Friend” seem to beg the question: if you really could go back, how disappointed would you be about things being the way they actually were, rather than the way you remember them.
So much of Hello Exile follows a similar push and pull: between longing to reclaim the past and dissembling the dishonesty of our own perhaps-overly-fond recollections about that past. The songs speak to all the things that time can do, how years can sweep through like a hurricane breeze and change us into different people. They speak to how lovers can become strangers, or to how a city can feel like a different place when the person you used to share it with is gone. They speak to how two people can change so much that they no longer fit together. They speak to summer flings and summertime escapes, and to how distant they can seem when you’re an adult with responsibilities and a whole lot of regrets. They speak to the way that wild drunken nights can shift from the lighthearted good times they are in college to something darker and more desperate as you creep toward middle age.
And of course, these songs speak to mortality. Sometimes, when you’re young, it’s hard not to feel invincible. There are so many paths, so many possibilities, so many minutes and hours and days and years to fill up with whatever you can dream. The moment youth ends might be the moment when you realize that nobody is bulletproof. Hello Exile’s closing track is fittingly titled “Farewell Youth,” and it begins with Barnett driving back to his hometown for “a difficult occasion”: the funeral of a childhood friend. It’s maybe the saddest song The Menzingers have ever recorded. When Barnett sings the words, it sounds like he might be fighting through a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. “The grief starts when bumping into friends turned acquaintances/We stumble around the small talk/We break the silence with Jameson/But once we were inseparable/We were the only punks in town/We spent every weekend raisin’ hell in the basement of your parents’ house.” Later, he reminisces about hanging out at someone’s apartment, listening to records, and getting underage drunk on cheap beer and liquor. “We couldn’t get enough of growing up,” he recalls. But now that chapter is over, encapsulated in the symbols of a casket and a very still body. “I saw my childhood flash before me in the death of your closed eyes/At your Irish wake we celebrate by trying not to cry.”
“Farewell youth, I’m afraid I hardly got to know you.” That’s the chorus punchline that The Menzingers leave us with as Hello Exile fades to black. It’s a punch to the gut, because it captures what everyone says about youth: that it’s wasted on the young, that we foolishly spend so much of it trying to grow up faster than we should, and that we’ll inevitably miss it when it’s gone. A cynical listener could frame all of this as a retread, because After the Party already tackled so much of this subject matter in very resonant fashion. But After the Party was the growing up record, and Hello Exile is the grown-up record, and there’s a notable difference between those things. There was a bright punk thrash to After the Party that’s replaced here with creeping darkness and yearning Americana. The songs are quieter, slower, more subdued. The cavernous production and reverb-heavy vocals evoke both the wide-open spaces of the American road and the big unknowable expanse that is adulthood. Maybe one day The Menzingers will make an album about finding their way in that expanse. For now, they’re stumbling around in it, trying to make sense of the confusion and wondering what the hell happened to the more linear path of youth. There’s something deeply comforting about being there beside them, not having all of the answers—and maybe having none of them—but finding the resolve to carry on regardless.