The Men get away from it all, returning from the woods with a new sound and a whole bunch of great songs.
Over the years it’s becoming a tried and tested artistic technique for musicians to get away from it all, run away to the country, shut themselves away in a log cabin and record an album. Why not? A change of scene is always nice, and more importantly by now there is plenty of precedent for a period of rural seclusion stimulating some compelling music. Bob Dylan might have pioneered this sort of thing when he and the Band shut themselves away to record in Big Pink in 1967, after Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) took the idea to an extreme, albeit a creatively fruitful one, when he spent the winter alone in his dad’s cabin to record For Emma Forever Ago.
So now we have the Men, that most urban of things -- an art-punk band from Brooklyn, NY -- running for the hills. Their new album, New Moon (is it just coincidence that Dylan’s comeback album after his accident was called New Morning? Probably.) was recorded in two quick weeks in the Catskills, in up-state New York. It’s immediately apparent that the rural vibe has influenced the music. I guess making music out in the wilderness just doesn’t feel right unless there are acoustic guitars, harmonicas and lap steel involved. The album is even being accompanied by a six-track EP called Campfire Songs, which they'll be giving away on their upcoming tour and which they, literally, recorded around a campfire.
New Moon opens unexpectedly for a band previously known for their volume and the punch -- with a jaunty piano melody accompanied by a languid strummed acoustic guitar. By way of comparison “Turn It Around”, from their last, great album Open Your Heart, opened with a solid wall of guitars and didn't take a breath until the song ended four minutes later. When the vocals eventually kick in on “Open the Door” they're so laid-back they sound almost drowsy, and the opening gambit is “Won't you slip on by my side / And drive through the countryside." It’s immediately apparent that something significant has changed for the Men. Later, they sing of lone tambourines, trees swayin’, guitars playin’ -- all to a backdrop of joyous ahhh ahhh ahhhhhhs. The song has shades of the Thrills’s easygoing sunny harmonies (another band who had a major change of scene influence their music), or the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain”. A Brooklyn basement punk venue, this ain't.
New Moon's second track, the driving “Half Angel Half Light”, is faster and louder than “Open the Door”, but retains the acoustic guitar. More significantly, the track has more in common with Tom Petty’s brand of rootsy, rough-edged classic rock than with Hüsker Dü, Sebadoh or Sonic Youth, or one of the other noisy underground bands that had been the most obvious influences on the Men's previous output. Albeit it's Tom Petty playing with half of the Heartbreakers replaced by the Jesus and Mary Chain: underneath the wide-screen, good-time rock ‘n roll there are squalling walls of distortion that would have never made their way onto “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, a song that “Half Angel Half Light” otherwise resembles. It’s a fantastic track though, simultaneously a head-nodding, thrilling rock song and an affecting, romantic thank you: “I've been drinking for so long / I gave up on life, I gave up on song / I've been digging a hole in the ground / I’ve been digging until you I found."
Is this opening just a feint? “Without a Face”, the third track on New Moon finds the band in more familiar territory, even if a blaring harmonica is a prominent part of the whirlwind stop-start cacophony that drives the song along. But by track four it's apparent that, no, it wasn't just a feint.
“The Seeds” is a ramshackle acoustic track that sounds constantly on the verge of falling apart, that ends up providing the biggest pay-off for this new approach. The song tells a straightforward, rueful breakup story, but in a wry, mock-poetic style (“Her hidden light / Packs quite a hit / But she took the money / Left me with no keys”). The song eventually winds its way up to a quiet middle 8 that offers a kind of redemption: “In the morning light / In evening's candlelight / To the water I'll go / Wash me and let it flow." Taken together, it's the kind of mature song-writing, by turns funny and heartfelt, that probably wouldn't have been possible in the band's earlier all-balls-to-the-wall incarnation.
The Men have nodded in this direction before, of course – the third song on Open Your Heart was called “Country Song”, even if the only thing really 'country' about the track was the presence of a mournful slide guitar. They did include a properly acoustic track on Open Your Heart, “Candy”, but enjoyable as it was that track felt more or less like a novelty item.
On New Moon it feels like the Men have committed to seeing where this stylistic change takes them, even if their tongue never fully leaves their cheek. “I Saw Her Face” channels Neil Young and Crazy Horse's yearning ruckus, another paean to lost love, and leads into a slide-guitar instrumental, a more pastoral version of “Country Song”. That song, which closes side one of the album, is called “High and Lonesome”, but given the band's love of wordplay it's likely that the title is meant to be taken literally, as much as it might be a reference to the lonely prairie.
Side two abruptly switches things up again, finding the band back in more familiar, cacophonous territory. That's a good thing. Good as the first side of New Moon is, and it's very good indeed, it would be a shame if the band lost touch with their great strength, their primal power.
So “The Brass” is a total blistering assault, a chorus-less fusillade of guitars and drums that props up a barely-coherent torrent of frustrated complaints: “I'm not rich but ya know I coulda been / Real life tore apart my soft skin / This is what 12 hours feels like." It's invigorating stuff, if a pretty sudden change of pace. The next song, “Electric” is just as fast, but to more melodic effect. In fact, it's probably the album's most immediately accessible song, the kind of uplifting, hard-charging punk/classic rock hybrid that made up the bulk of “Open Your Heart” and that Japandroids do so brilliantly.
The rest of the album is mostly in a similar vein -- “I See No One” and “Freaky” are both direct, squalling rockers, not as chaotically loud as “The Brass” or as catchy as “Electric” but still packing a solid gut-punch. “Bird Song” would have fit nicely on side one, a ramshackle, organ-fueled ballad built on a soft fog of distortion cut through with bursts of harmony and harmonica. It's a short, simple song, with harmonica wails standing in for a chorus, that again brings to mind the wistful, hopeful songs of The Basement Tapes.
The album ends in chaos with the monolithic “Supermoon”. It's the sort of track future generations will still be wondering over, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for a new century. “Supermoon” is an eight-minute torrent of guitar that alternates between squalling solos and punishing riffs, built on a barely-credible barrage of punishing drums and bizarre, chanted, quasi-religious vocals. What it means is anybody's guess, but it sounds like it'll be a lot of fun in the encore to a live show. Maybe the message is as simple as: don't take any of what went before too seriously.
New Moon is one of those excellent albums that's going to divide opinion, especially among long-standing fans of the band. It's full of unquestionably great songs, yet the abrupt changes in pace, tone and style are going to annoy plenty of people, or cause them to question the band's intentions. Personally, I say just accept it: The Men apparently like Tom Petty and Neil Young as much as they like Black Flag and Sonic Youth. If this is the result, who are we to complain?