Punk rock can have real slow years, and 2011 was one of them. Sure, Fucked Up grabbed all the indie headlines, Frank Turner delivered another dependably solid album, and Against Me! put out that really good EP, but 2011 was kind of a wash year for the genre after a really solid 2010. A year in which we mostly saw side projects (Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon), reunions (Blink-182) and disappointments (again, Blink-182) take over the landscape.
Hence, 2012 figures to be a big year for punk rock, as all the bands that took 2011 off are headed for new records, and all the breakthrough bands (Titus Andronicus, Fake Problems…mostly Titus Andronicus) that permeated 2010 figure to see if they can build on prior success. First out of the gate are the Menzingers, a group of highly-literate Pennsylvanians whose second record, 2010’s Chamberlain Waits, was a fantastic, tidal-wave of an album that won ‘Best of’ honors from Punknews that year.
It gives me great pleasure to say that the band’s third album, On the Impossible Past is even better. It does everything Chamberlain did (muscular riffs, wordy verses and choruses that still fit, exploration of ’90s indie roots) but even better. Produced by Matt Allison (Alkaline Trio, the Lawrence Arms), the same man that was at the controls for Chamberlain, On the Impossible Past not only sees the Menzingers growing stronger, but also growing up, and in a way that accentuates their sound for the better.
First, let’s talk about “Gates”, obviously the stand-out track. A slow-building anthem about loneliness in middle America (with references to the band’s hometown of Scranton) it demands your attention, with a heart-breaking chorus (“I’m marching up to your gates today / To throw my lonely soul away”) and verses that speak to the truth of growing up young, drunk and bored. I can look back on this and laugh if I need to, but I don’t know that I’ll hear a better song in 2012.
What helps is that it’s no fluke, and the rest of On the Impossible Past serves itself around that theme. It’s maybe one or two name-drops away from being a concept album about growing up in the Midwest. Opener “Good Things” bathes lovingly in self-loathing. Singer Greg Barnett has an almost Morrissey-esque croon, before then screaming the song’s manifesto, “I’ve been having a horrible time / Trying to pull myself together.” If there’s a line that stands for this album, that’s it.
Other highlights include the quite-chorus/loud-verse “Ava House”, the half-acoustic “Sculptors and Vandals”, and the album’s emotional climax, “Casey”. The song’s titular heroine, much like many of the Menzingers paramours, is a tragically loved waitress who yells louder than any Manic Pixie Dream Girl, “cause it was so much easier than dealing with anything,” screams Barnett. It’s blood-curdlingly honest and heartfelt, without reducing itself to sappiness.
On the Impossible Past is an impeccably crafted melodic hardcore record by a group ready for it’s close-up. Without a single misstep throughout, it might be the most consistent punk record since Searching for a Former Clarity. It’s high time these guys became stars, and they have the perfect record with which to do it.