Greg Barnett is a big believer in redemption. Back in 2014, he pined for another shot: “I don’t wanna be an asshole anymore!” went his impassioned plea on The Menzingers’ track of the same name. That was on the Philly-based punks’ punchy, sulking, gargantuan Rented World (the same record that saw Barnett roaring, “Nothing feels good anymore”). It’s impossible to have a conversation about The Menzingers without acknowledging the Nabokovian longing that runs through their music; hell, they even named their 2012 record On The Impossible Past after a quote from Lolita. And let the record show: it’s one of the greatest records of the 21st century.
This time around, Barnett is posing a different sort of introspection, just as genuine and earnest and desirous of answer: “Is it wrong to say that things can change?”
“I’ve always been fascinated with the past,” Barnett admits. “There’s always this push and pull of trying to make sense of it, or being fed up with it, or being disgusted by it.”
It’s not a drab, circular regurgitation of the past, though. It’s not just nostalgia and wistful reminiscence (although those are standard earmarks for Menzingers fare); it’s a tool of analysis, an inventory of sorts.
“Sometimes it just takes a while for me to gain a clear perspective on things,” he continues.
The Menzingers new record, After The Party, is that clear perspective. Barnett is as sobering as ever here, reconciling a decade of romance, touring, getting shitfaced and sleeping on floors with the futile cyclicality of it all. Barnett asserts that the album is an ode to their 20s, a decade “lost in the motions to romance and cheap whiskey.” It’s an assessment as much as a “longing for a specific moment to have happened a certain way.” As much as our 20s are defined by a glorious, wide-eyed energy, and an essential, principled belief in what’s good and green, they’re also defined by the tempering of those exact things. It’s a 10-year reading of Oh, The Places You’ll ACTUALLY Go. It’s the slow, bleak realization that maybe the stars never really align; maybe you’ll always be a month behind on your phone bill. Maybe the state of essential adulthood we were trained to aspire to is a myth.
“Do we ever really need stability? Or are we just looking to enjoy what we have at the moment?” Barnett poses these rhetorically, but they’re not weightless. After The Party is stocked with similar musings, and they ring with more gravity and urgency than they’d suggest: they’re genuinely wondering if it’s wrong to say things can change, ‘cause they’re not sure what the fuck they should be aspiring to anymore. “You can look at your parents, your aunts and uncles, grandparents, whatever, and just grow up thinking that they’ve had it all together. But the older you get, you realize that those structures weren’t as strong as you thought they were.”
After The Party is about frustration, too; at the world, at religion, at themselves. “We’ve all been part of a culture that obsesses over buying into a system of going to college, paying for an expensive degree, then you’ll see success after that,” he rails. “We all kind of realized that doesn’t work as well as we were told it would.” What next? Start a punk rock band. Fast-forward through a decade and five records. What next?
“It’s not very glamorous to see what happens to your body after 10 years of sleeping on floors and drinking every night, and getting two hours of sleep. This album is kind of an ode to all those times.” Barnett is dangerously close to grumbling, but his warm chuckle betrays no resentment. Laura Jane Grace summed this one up on “Thrash Unreal:” “If she had to live it all over again, you know she wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
Barnett’s attempts to reconcile the romance of transience with the simultaneous intransigence of the past are heroic and storied. And at some point, the two read as intrinsically linked; an endless sprint to outrun the past. In this vein, he’s pondering how long it would take to drive to Los Angeles, just as long as they get the fuck out of the Midwestern states. But After The Party is a turn on the heel; a roadside rest stop to pull out a crinkled map to see just where the fuck you’re going. It seems like a rare introduction of calm and retrospect to the same man who screamed over and over, “I will fuck this up, I fucking know it.”
In that respect, Barnett seems to be balancing his head and his heart, or at least introducing the two to each other. This isn’t to discount this record, or the ones that preceded it; they’re all wonderful affairs. It’s just that this time he’s not doomed to the past; closing out the record, Barnett howls in his Springsteen best, “While bastards dance off with the night/As we try to break free with all our might.” It seems he’s resigned to the inevitability of change, not desperately clawing after the past, but reflecting.
“With [After The Party] in particular, I wanted to write a love song using mundane images to tell the story of falling in love,” he explains. “All these mundane images kind of paint the story of how they fell in love.” From “hardcore from laptop speakers” to “that Matryoshka Russian doll that lines your shelf from big to small,” these are the John K. Samson-esque minutiae that become loaded catalysts to something bigger, when “whole years refuse to stay where we told them to (bad dog!), locked up, whining, in a word or a misplaced souvenir.”
After all is said and done, Barnett is still writing ill-fated love songs, immortalizing those rare, brutal scrapes with perfection and happiness, never destined to last. After all, that’s the one thing that can be counted on, the one unifying constant: change. Places change, jobs change, friends change, feelings change, and so on etcetera. On feeling pressured to act differently now that he’s almost 30, he shoots, “it’s a loaded question that you put onto yourself.” Lately, he’s trying to improve his chops as the weight of being a professional musician a decade into his career sets in.
After The Party, like so much of Barnett’s writing, is the product of the demise of something, an ending, the apparent death of “this rambling youth that we’ve had for so long.” But on this record, he and rest of The Menzingers seem to be ready for the change, up to the task of adapting and surviving. They probably didn’t mean to, but they crafted the kind of record that asks the questions that we, in the 21st century, are being confronted with everyday. So, one more time: “Is it wrong to say that things can change?”