However The Menzingers would choose to follow up After The Party, it was never going to be an easy task. After all, that album was among the cream of the crop of releases in 2017, crystallising their rousing, melodic punk core into a near-perfect diamond of an album rooted in nostalgia but feeling impossibly vital all the same. To this day, there hasn’t been another punk album of the sort that’s even come close to topping what The Menzingers brought on After The Party, and with the overwhelming success and praise it received, it’s an album that’s going to be the gold standard for heartfelt alt-punk for a long time to come. But in a way, it sets Hello Exile up for a fall from the very start, with the immediate comparisons to its older brother likely to be placed at the very front of the mind for a disadvantage right off the back that it doesn’t deserve. Sure, The Menzingers have fallen into a habit of not straying too far from a set-in-stone, old-school Americana template, but as Anna and America (You’re Freaking Me Out) have already shown, they’re more than capable of still making it work, and Hello Exile deserves to be given its own opportunity to show that rather than be entirely judged on what came before.
But let’s get the definitive answer out the way early – no, Hello Exile is not better than After The Party, but very few things are, and considering that this feels like something very different that The Menzingers are trying to do, they still hit a remarkable level of quality that’s absolutely nothing to complain about. It’s not too much of a step away from the norm, but there’s definitely a darker, more overcast tone that’s still an incredibly strong fit, and in the slight maneuvers that the band make in their sound, Hello Exile feels in many ways like a counterpart to After The Party rather than an outright progression. But if that sounds like a knock to what this album has to offer, it’s really not; Hello Exile is yet another piece of brilliance in a catalogue that rarely seems to stray from the stuff, and one that explores enough new avenues to show how deep-seated that brilliance is within The Menzingers.
A lot of that is present in the writing as well, where the notion of Hello Exile being a counterpart to its predecessor feels the most realised. Where that album was centred on the nostalgic brightness of years gone to escape the mundanity of age, Hello Exile flips that idea around a bit, where the memories don’t always turn out so well, and where the escapism feels all the more necessary against the advancing bleakness and hostility of the real world. Having the charged political broadside America (You’re Freaking Me Out) as the opener sets the scene early, but it’s built on even further by the gnawing neuroses of death on Last To Know and climate change on Strawberry Mansion, to the point where seemingly the only way to make do is an unhealthy combination of boiling frustration and self-medication on Strain Your Memory and I Can’t Stop Drinking. Even retreating back to the halcyon days of youth doesn’t work either, with the absences of old loved ones being felt all the harder on Anna, and rekindling those relationships on High School Friend only reveals how much worse everything is. It’s a heavier tone than usual, but it’s one that The Menzingers can sell thanks to how literate and flowing their writing is, and how the richness of the imagery gives these scenes and characters so much personality and populism. Bar the closer Farewell Youth which comes across as an unfortunately rote retread of previously explored themes but with an unflattering broadness, these feel like the stories of real people rather than just a composite of ideas that could eventually be wedged into a broader theme, and in the same way that The Menzingers have always embraced it, doing so here gives Hello Exile the depth and scope that’s always so magnetic.
As for the instrumentation, it’s perhaps the one area where this album is shakier that The Menzingers’ previous work by the most marginal amount, as leaning more directly into producer Will Yip’s emo-inspired work for a darker tone on Last To Know and I Can’t Stop Drinking doesn’t quite hit the same heights of immediacy as the wall-to-wall anthemia of an album like After The Party did. That’s not necessarily an issue on its own though, particularly when both Greg Barnett and Tom May are such forceful and impassioned vocalists who can sell this material just as easily as their more upbeat punk fare. And besides, it’s not like Hello Exile is lacking on that front either, as The Menzingers flaunt their knack for towering melodies at an almost ridiculous frequency. The deeper acoustic lines feel perfectly placed among the bounding mid-pace of Strangers Forever and Portland, while the likes of Anna, High School Friend and Strain Your Memory capture the oh-so-loved style of warm yet gruff and gritty timelessness that The Menzingers have gotten down to an art at this point. The production only accentuates that windswept, burnished appearance as well, especially in the guitars with their incredible amount of depth, and maintaining a balance between snarling and wistful expertly. There’s definitely an increased darkness in tone as well, given how much more sunken it can feel without losing its sense of exuberance. The usual Menzingers sound is here, but the thematic turbulence feels so well integrated and really helps Hello Exile to stand out as a whole.
But really, it’s not like the vast majority of that had to laid out. There’s a couple of certain expectations when it comes to The Menzingers nowadays, namely that they’ll generally continue along the same sonic thread and they’ll be excellent at it, and Hello Exile hits both of those marks without even breaking a sweat. It’s familiar, but not once is that to its detriment, and the slight changes and advancements add up to enough for this not to be just a blatant retread of what came before. And sure, it’s not quite as consistently surefooted as this band’s material has been in the past, but in what feels like a necessary move that ekes out so much more potential on top of the mountains already there, it’s another home run from a band from whom no one would expect anything less.
For fans of: The Gaslight Anthem, Hot Water Music, Off With Their Heads
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Hello Exile’ by The Menzingers is released on 4th October on Epitaph Records.