Déjà nostalgia: A whole life, plus two nights, with The Menzingers

marquee outside music hall of williamsburg, 4/2/17. photo by me.

marquee outside music hall of williamsburg, 4/2/17. photo by me.

The Menzingers occupy this specific space in rock music. They aren't the only band that live in this space, but they're one of the best at doing this thing within it. There's no hard definition for this space, no concrete rules or regulations that determine its residents; it's not marked by a specific sub-genre or even a certain execution of a familiar sound. The space they fill is more recognizable by the way a Menzingers song can make you feel.

This feeling was all around me when I listened to "Lookers" for the first time. Released in August last year, the track was the first single dropped from their recently released album After the Party (Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, vinyl on Amazon). Friend of the program Dan Ozzi wrote, in Noisey's premiere of the song, about The Menzingers' affinity for nostalgia within their songwriting. This affinity is of paramount importance to The Menzingers' membership in this space, and that space is where the term déjá nostalgia will apply most directly. He called on the band's past records, On the Impossible Past and Rented World, for their nostalgic vibes and commented that "Lookers" feels like an instant Menzingers classic, which I very much agree with.

Nostalgia is a prominent feeling when listening to this band, especially to OTIP, due to the imagery in which The Menzingers often deal. The scenes from that album are well known by now: American muscle cars, American diners, American waitresses, a non-zero amount of American drunkenness, driving without aim, getting nowhere (the plot does not develop / it ends where it begins), etc. The Menzingers are amongst the few bands that pull this off without being corny, which is the highest risk run by bands who operate in this area, lyrically. And the nostalgia factor comes into play because diners, muscle cars and other settings or objects like those don't feel particularly of this era, though all of them still exist; there's a wistfulness, a vignette tinge, a haze and romanticism to it all. On the Impossible Past feels simultaneously new and old, even on first listen.

Themes from and sounds on On the Impossible Past also led to The Menzingers being compared, a lot, to bands like The Gaslight Anthem, The Hold Steady, a touch of Lucero, and other bands in those general realms. These comparisons are still common today. I've never felt a direct kinship between The Menzingers and those acts on a sonic level, aside from the general fact they all play relatively similar-ish sounding rock music like most rock bands do, but all of those groups also certainly reside in this space and/or wheelhouse I mentioned earlier, where déjá nostalgia runs either rampant or timid. This lends to the idea that their kinship is at least as easily identified by emotion rather than literal sound.

That feeling is what drives me nuts about The Menzingers. It's what made On the Impossible Past a really difficult album to write about, for me, when it came out. I loved it without quite being able to describe why I loved it, which is a good reason I don't write music reviews anymore. "Lookers," and to only a slightly lesser extent the singles that succeeded it, "Bad Catholics" and "After the Party," bring back this emotion with great haste. It was missing, for me, from large chunks of Rented World (though I still very much enjoy that LP), but After the Party is straight-up riddled with it. That emotion is what I've taken to calling déjá nostalgia recently, for lack of any better term.

"Lookers" is my primary example here, so I'm going to write about that song first. There's a quality to this song that, the first time I listened to it, prompted me to feel nostalgic for a memory that I, personally, do not have. The general air of nostalgia in this context doesn't really make sense to me, because nostalgia should, by definition, have some type of intimate, or at least personal, connection. From Wikipedia:

Déjà vu, from French, literally "already seen," is the phenomenon of having the strong sensation that an event or experience currently being experienced has already been experienced in the past. Déjà vu is a feeling of familiarity, and déjà vécu (the feeling of having "already lived through" something) is a feeling of recollection.

So, hence, therefore, without further ado: déjá nostalgia. This is what defines The Menzingers for me when they're at their best, and it's a sensation I feel when I listen to bands like The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady as well. This is helped along because The Menzingers sing, at times, about specific instances in which I was not involved or scenes at which I was not present, but they balance that with more sweeping and generalist imagery and emotion as well. "Lookers" has plenty of examples to choose from:

Lost in a picture frame,
The way our bodies used to behave.
The way we smiled in the moment
Before they permanently froze.
But that was the old me and you, when we were both lookers.

That's pretty general lyricism though it's direct and cutting, and contributes heavily to that déjá nostalgia vibe in this song. Those lyrics can place you anywhere. The chorus then hones in on New Jersey, and specifically on The Wonder Bar, for scenery and memory. I've been to The Wonder Bar, but only once; I've been to New Jersey plenty of times, but it's not a state I have a ton of ties to on an emotional level. These lyrics, while fun to sing along to, simultaneously encourage the listener to replace them, mentally or sub-consciously, with a proper personal memory that fits the mood of the song. The déjá nostalgia mood is further aided by the song's sonic qualities -- a guitar chord progression in the chorus that's basically comfort food in terms of how happy it can make you, the claps in the verses, the Kerouac reference, even the use of "sha la la" in general. These sonic qualities, much like American diners and muscle cars, don't necessarily feel like they belong to 2017. Not only do I feel nostalgic for a moment I cannot place, but it's another one of those tracks that tricks your mind by feeling old and new at the same time. The emotions it draws out can feel ancient, but it's undoubtedly fresh to me.

"Bad Catholics" has more of this goodness to it, and even lyrically mentions the idea I'm getting at. The narrator is at a church picnic:

There I saw you in the beer tent,
Hanging with your new husband and your baby on the way.
Oh it's kind of strange how it made me miss something,
Long lost in the both of us now.

This song makes me miss something that is either long lost in me or perhaps was never there to begin with. Were you not a communion-skipper driving around under the influence of marijuana with the town preacher's daughter in your youth, getting caught and released by the cops in the process? Neither was I, though this song could convince me I was. The final single, the title track on the album, features The Menzingers in their most comfortable and successful wheelhouse -- using small-scale imagery to set the scene for a larger, more sweeping story.

It's the little things my mind commits to etch behind my eyelids
Like getting stoned when we wake up
Coffee grounds in coffee cups
Your silhouette in high-top sneakers
And hardcore from laptop speakers, the classics to the more obscure
From Minor Threat to your old roommate's band
Like a kaleidoscope admiring years
I navigate around your tattoos
Said you got that one on a whim when you were breaking up with him

Greg Barnett, who splits vocal duties with Tom May in this band, but who is the lead singer on all three After the Party singles, explained the song to Stereogum in their premiere: "The title track to the record [...] is the central emotional epiphany of the album, written in images. They’re mundane moments etched behind eyelids that culminate into meaningful realizations." (The "Matryoshka Russian doll" moment from this track is the strongest example, but I don't wanna sit here and quote the whole dang song.) In that quote to Stereogum, Barnett encapsulates exactly one-half of what The Menzingers are great at. Like so many songs on On the Impossible Past and like The Wonder Bar in "Lookers," the imagery in "After the Party" demonstrates, perhaps more successfully than any other Menzingers song to date, how this band is able to permeate large emotions and feelings via seemingly random details. 

More from Barnett, to Stereogum: "Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview: 'I don’t think in language. I think in images.' I wanted to play off that idea, and use imagery as unexciting as the sludge in the bottom of a coffee cup to tell a bigger story. In doing so, it captured the excitement of falling in love that language often misses." From coffee cups and hardcore music blaring through a laptop comes another big emotion in the song -- one that might take a few listens for the listener to catch on to, but nonetheless memorable. Perhaps the déjá nostalgia isn't as strong in this track, but it nonetheless serves as a great example for The Menzingers as masters in their lyrical balancing act.

In this track, it's the final line of the chorus that serves as the lyric to rally around: "But after the party, it's me and you." It's a more broadly relatable line, zoomed out to the wide view we get at the beginning of "Lookers." 

the menzingers at music hall of williamsburg, during "in remission." photo by me.

the menzingers at music hall of williamsburg, during "in remission." photo by me.

On Thursday and Sunday of last week, I had the great pleasure of watching The Menzingers play at Irving Plaza in New York and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. After loving After the Party since its release, I was very excited for these shows and they lived up to this anticipation by delivering the best set I've ever seen them play. An equal mix of OTIPRented World and After the Party, the set had a little bit of all the things The Menzingers do so well. Crowd favorites like "Casey" and pretty much everything else from On the Impossible Past, balanced by both raucous bangers and more introspective tracks from Rented World. Besides missing out on a couple of Chamberlain Waits song, which, you know, they can't play forever, I can't imagine a Menzingers set I would have enjoyed more.

"After the Party" came up in the middle of the set, but the big-time déjá nostalgia songs were saved for the end. "Bad Catholics" closed the primary set, while "Lookers" opened the encore; "Casey," which is another great example of this feeling I'm attempting to illustrate, came after "Lookers" and right before the cathartic close of "In Remission." Before all those tracks came multiple other After the Party songs: I love "Tellin' Lies," the album opener, as the set-opening track, and I think it should stay in that position for the foreseeable future; "Thick As Thieves" has the feel of an arena-rock epic, and it's my favorite Tom song on the album; but the highlight from the set, and the highlight from After the Party as a whole for me, is "Your Wild Years," which is the best Menzingers song ever now, the final evolution of what the album's title track did well.

We drove up to Massachusetts together
Your old house was just like you remember
We stayed in your adolescent room
Rummaged through the boxes labeled "former you"
The souvenirs of happiness in the moment
Your wild years that you often mention
The sands of time in an hourglass
That you're always begging for back
I got drunk in the afternoon with your father in the living room
As the television broke the silence
You smiled, know that I was trying the best that I can do

This lengthy verse is stocked very full with emotion, and plenty of déjá nostalgia to boot. Rummaging through boxes labeled "former you" is an even better version of that "Matryoshka Russian doll" lyric in "After the Party" for me, so cleverly presenting the idea of looking at items from your past or discussing your past with your current partner. The imagery of "[drinking] in the afternoon with your father in the living room" is one that boyfriends worldwide can relate to, even if they've never done that specific thing -- and, applied as an idea, most people who've ever been in a relationship have that first-time experience of trying to break the ice with a new partner's parents, meeting them for the first time.

This album takes me places; watching those sets last week took me places. Took me to places from my past, but also to places I'd never been before, places either remembered or imagined. The lines are blurred with After the Party, because it so effectively creates a haze in time. The Menzingers are a band that have been with me forever, even before I knew them, even before they were a band. After the Party is just the latest in a line of triumphs, from an act that has achieved living legend status, an act that doesn't owe me anything anymore, not that they ever did. They've given me just about everything I can ask for from rock music, and it'll stay with me forever.