LP4 is a huge hurdle for The Menzingers. Whenever a band goes up against themselves, it’s an enormous test of their staying power and ability to grow within their own sound. The popularity and cult-like adoration surrounding 2012’s On The Impossible Past makes it obvious that The Menzingers are The Menzingers’ biggest competitors when it comes to Rented World, as the questions surrounding this release view it pointedly as a “follow-up,” and whether that follow-up could possibly meet lofty expectations.
This is fair and unfair for the Scranton, PA quartet. When I reviewed Transit’s Young New England, and completely trashed that album, I wrote that the band had set a standard for excellence in the past – a standard that I held them to with their new work. The Menzingers are in exactly the same boat. At the same time, it’s daunting to give an encore to an album as holistically spectacular and sweeping in nature as the Americana-tinged, story-telling punk rock that Impossible Past offered us; as vocalist and guitarist Greg Barnett explained to Exclaim! Magazine, “…when we first started writing, even the first note, it was like, ’Oh, where do we start?’” [Italics added for emphasis.]
All that said, The Menzingers promptly offer up a delightful effort with Rented World, a record that ebbs and flows with huge rock-n-roll guitar riffs, bombastic drumming, spectacular bass work and a variety of tempo changes to please fans across the board. The Menzingers still borrow from the Replacements, but we hear some pages being torn from the books of shimmering ‘90s alt-rock as well. Take the opening “I Don’t Want To Be An Asshole Anymore” for example – its opening guitar notes appeal to being being blasted in an arena as much as Barnett’s first jot-in-yr-notebook-worthy lyric, “I was the focal point / Out of focus, out of ink,” begs to be shouting along to at a crowded bar gig. Still, The Menzingers are great American poets.
Where punk rock finds its heart is in a desperate, visceral mood; a holy grail that isn’t easily tapped into. To be just right, a band has to be earnest without being overzealous…they have to find the proper desperate tone without being corny. It’s something that you can’t think about in the studio, something that can only come naturally, and this evasiveness makes it even more rare. But The Menzingers find their comfort zone early and often in Rented World, ditching a lot of the self-deprecating lyricism found on past releases in favor of a more general brand of heartache and scorn.
In some ways, this 12-song album is divided into thirds, with major highlights coming at the end of each third. Track 4 is the bass-anchored, brooding “Where Your Heartache Exists,” where Barnett’s vocals are mainly smooth before getting rough in the song’s midsection. The guitar solo and final chorus are huge rewards for listeners, capping off a brilliant build throughout. Track 8 provides another slower-tempo song in “Nothing Feels Good Anymore,” which delivers in its passionate chorus and when Barnett painfully belts, “‘Baby, baby buzz me in,’ I ring your intercom and say / But you just poke your head through the curtain and my heart’s on the floor / Nothing feels good anymore.” Still, The Menzingers ask you politely to grab a beer and turn up the volume to a decibel that will wake the neighbors.
The album closer is the acoustic, Dylan-esque “When You Died,” a song that is perhaps even more of an bruising, crushing experience than all 11 (louder) tracks that come before it. The innocence with which Barnett delivers the chorus is just fucking sad: “Where do people go when they die? / How do you keep them alive? / How do you make sure that something like this won’t ever happen again? / Not to any other friends.” Still, The Menzingers are at their best when they’re weighing on your chest with an emotional heaviness that is nearly unmatched by their peers.
While Rented World may not offer the thematic comforts that fans of Impossible Past will be searching for, the album is stacked from top to bottom with can’t-miss tracks. “Rodent” is a chaotic, metaphorical masterpiece; “Transient Love” is an airy, groovy departure in sound that may somewhat kill the momentum sitting in the middle of the tracklisting, but it’s incredible standing on its own; “The Talk” is a short blast of fun that sounds like ‘90s Green Day covering a Ramones song; “Hearts Unknown” and “In Remission” combine for a sweet one-two punch near the album’s end that together recall Impossible Past more than anything else on Rented World.
Vocalist / guitarist Tom May told BLARE Magazine: “Not to sound like some kind of pretentious idiot, but we weren’t really that concerned with topping the last record because it’s not really a competition. It’s something that’s completely different, apples to oranges.” Well, I can compare apples to oranges if I’m deciding which fruit I want to eat. The thing is, fruits are the types of things that can be better when you combine two different kinds together instead of eating them all exclusively. There’s room for more than one fruit in my heart.
Rented World and On The Impossible Past are records that will complement each other for the rest of your life if you let them. As the seasons change and you grow more familiar with Rented World’s nuances, like you did with those on Impossible Past, it will become clear that each album has its own role in what is blossoming into a remarkable career from this band. These two records, joined with 2010’s phenomenal-in-its-own-right Chamberlain Waits, combine to form a three-album arc that is the type of shit that nerdy punk guys will retrospectively freak out about in a decade. People will praise this trio of records like they do Goddamnit, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and From Here To Infirmary, and you’ll be able to say that you were on board for the whole thing. No frills about it: The Menzingers are the best active punk band that we have right now.