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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Menzingers- On The Impossible Past


(Epitaph 2012)
Reviewed by Null

It almost seems redundant to write a review of The Menzingers’ On the Impossible Past record because it received many rave reviews upon its release a few years ago. However, it has resonated so deeply with me that I felt a review was in order. I also felt I should write a review because this album has returned me to a time before MP3s, iTunes, and the death of the long play album and record stores in general. This is because the process through which I acquired the album, and fell in love with it, harkens back to the old days.
Sometimes it is good to take a chance on an album that you know nothing about. I would often do this when my town had an independent record store. If I saw an intriguing album cover, I would just pick it up and take a chance. I have found some of my favorite albums this way.
The first thing that drew me to this record was the cover. The back-and-white image of a faceless woman with her hand on her heart seemed intriguing enough and the focal point of the picture is a mysterious ring—of a lost love, a fading love, or a lifetime companion that has weathered the hardships of life and loss.



I saw the album was released on Epitaph records, which made me hesitate. True, Epitaph has been the home of Bad Religion, one of my life-long favorite bands, but the ongoing problem with Epitaph, as with Fat Wreck Chords, is that all their albums tend to sound the same, with few exceptions. They tend to have the same production and “Southern California punk” sound. In many ways, I think these labels have contributed to the homogeneous sound of punk these days. The punk scene used to be very diverse and on many small labels I am sure it still is.
So, I took a chance and brought the record home. Upon listening to the first half of the album, I heard a production that was very familiar, and to be honest, pretty boring. The album contained the motifs and punk-pop structures that have been played into the ground. Yet, I had to admit that there was something different happening here. The slick California punk sound was evident, but this album has a more raw and salt of the earth feel. Another contributing factor was that the vocals had a very “wearing your heart on your sleeve” delivery, more akin to Gaslight Anthem or Springsteen. The album also had a literary feel. These guys were storytellers. And they are from the East Coast, not California.

            After listening to the second half of the record, I immediately started it over and listened again. This continued for about the next five days and the album bloomed like a fucking lotus of heartache, nostalgia, and loss. This is what leads me back to the old days. When I was a kid, I would get a cassette tape with my allowance, and listen to it over and over again. Some of these cassettes were great and some not so much. Regardless, the tape would sit in my car’s cassette player for days or weeks. Some of my most loved records were “growers,” and this is definitely the case with On the Impossible Past. The brilliance of the record only becomes evident when taken as a whole.
            If one were to hear a song from this album in isolation, it probably wouldn’t make much of an impact, which brings us back to the lost art of appreciating an album as a complete story, like a book. As the days went by, I started to hear the emotional wail of such beloved bands like Seaweed, the urgency of the vocal delivery found on Superchunk records, and the deep literary storytelling found in Springsteen. As a sentimental literature geek, this album began to resonate deep under my skin. Yes, it is filled with guitar-pop hooks and heartbreaking sing-a-long choruses but, unlike when I first listened to the record, it now all sounded like an old familiar friend.

            The lyrics began to sink in and my literary analysis was put on high alert. The album begins with, “I’ve been having a horrible time pulling myself together.” This sets the tone for the entire album, which is a meditation on life and loss. Its literary implications and tradition rock / punk structure are overt in the second track, as the formula for the album is laid bare, “Here’s to you, the same chords that I stole / From a song that I once heard / The same melody I borrowed from the void / I’d rather observe than structure a narrative / the characters are thin, the plot does not develop / It ends where it begins.” This is a synopsis of the entire record to follow. Except the characters aren’t thin—they are filled with complex and contradictory implications in an impossible situation. Such is life.
            It is said that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes. This is definitely the case with this record. What follows are stories of specific times, people, and places weaved into catchy and heartfelt tales of times gone by, never to return. It is a sentimental and nostalgic journey, and it is one that anyone with any awareness of the passing of time can relate to. It somberly accepts loss while defiantly fighting against fading memories. It embraces the present while being haunted by romantic and vivid images of the past. The distinction between the past and the present becomes foggy.

“I’ve cursed my lonely memory with picture perfect imagery / maybe I’m not dying I’m just living in decaying cities.”

            The urgency of the present is often made explicit by the fading of the past, as each day counts down to our inevitable end. Painful or joyous memories can grip your throat at any unexpected moment.

“It’s like I’ve landed in the rubble of my past life and…never…bought a return flight, from the shame, the fear, the guilt that’s tough to mention, the kind that always pries your eyelids open.”
We are haunted by the people we have loved, who are no longer with us. Everything is fleeting like the pain of remembering the pitter-patter of young love.

“You’ll carve your names into the Paupack cliffs just to read them when you get old enough to know that happiness is just a moment.”

Fuck. This album is beautiful.

“Now I’m older and tired.”

            Music is one of those art forms that can have an immediate emotional impact. The dynamics between the often melancholic / celebratory mood of this record and the somber and sentimental reality of the lyrics make for an infectious mix that mirror the workings of my everyday experience and thought processes. I’m afraid to stay up and drink into the wee-wee hours while listening to this record because the cops might pick me up drunk, crying, naked, and dancing in the street, while the stereo is blaring this album through my open windows at 1:00 AM. It could happen. The sound is so youthful and at the same time so world weary. Like me.

            The record mourns the present meaninglessness of life while waxing nostalgic for lost friends and simpler times, “You were an old friend, the kind I could confide in and drink with, on random neighborhood porch steps, our glossy eyes painted portraits of the streets.’ Yet, as time goes by, “everything I do now is meaningless,” under, “the great pessimistic unknown.”

            The song, “Casey” is particularly touching, as the vocalist sings about meeting up and wondering the streets with his old friend after her shift waiting tables, “I sat and thought about you on the long ride back to Philly, from the way you’d wear your hair to the way you’d laugh when you drank too much.” A simple story of friends hanging out descends into desperation and the longing for escape, “So, Casey, tell me when you’re ready I’m all packed to go. To search for that old place we found forever ago….” It is heartbreaking because we don’t know what happened to Casey; we just get the sense that she is absolutely inaccessible.
For old sentimental romantics, like me, this shit is great, especially when the drums are getting pounded in unison with the melodic guitars as the desperation takes hold.
At first, the album seemed apolitical. It was just a brilliant meditation on being haunted by enviable loss. But then, with further listens, I realized that there is a backdrop for this personal pain and longing, a greater context and subtext. It is the myth of the American Dream that is lost in its infancy. There is a subtle but repeated motif of an “American muscle car” throughout the album. Though I have already quoted the opening lyrics to the album, the first track goes on to state, “…we would take rides in your American muscle car, I felt American for once in my life and I never felt it again.” The search for some sort of national belonging is lost before it even begins.
            This motif is revisited in a short vignette, “On the Impossible Past.” It also leads into the following song, “Nice Things.” In the short vignette, of the former song, the vocalist tells of him and his friends riding in the “American muscle car” while dreaming of “nice things.” They are sharing smokes and drinking, which results in the car sliding off the road and into a ditch. This song only makes sense when related to the song “Nice Things,” which directly follows it. “Nice Things” is reminiscent of Fugazi’s “Merchandise” from the album Repeater, in that, our identities become inseparable from the commodities we buy. Fugazi’s indictment of consumerism is direct and severe, while The Menzingers’ is much more subtle. We find that the “nice things” the kids were dreaming about in their “American muscle car” equates to objects, riches, etc.—the world could be falling apart but if you are surrounded by “nice things,” you are somehow safe from the realities of the outside world. As in, “Nice Things,” The Menzingers sing, “Do you want nice things? Sure you do. Do you call nice things your own? Do you want them? Do you want to feel safe?” The juxtaposition between the kids in the car dreaming about “nice things” exists in stark contrast to their reality of drinking and driving and ending up in the ditch. This is the reality of the American Dream. A million dollar house will not keep you safe or shelter you from the inevitable passing of time. Marx knew it. Fugazi knew it. And The Menzingers restate it in a much more subtle fashion, thus creating a backdrop and context for the further meditation on life and loss.

As I previously quoted from the beginning of the record, “the plot does not develop, it ends where it begins,” we find the last song mirrors the beginning. The album ends with a mid-tempo melancholy track with a constant rumble of floor toms like a slow palpitating broken heart called “Freedom Bridge,” which details individuals that have fallen between the cracks or succumbed to living with faded dreams and the fumes of memory. The last verse details the “freedom” that the bridge provides:
“Now we’re standing on the ledge /and we’re looking at the ground / I feel my body breaking on the asphalt, hear the sound / Red and blue lights, saying, / “Step up off that ledge” / So we wrap our hearts up in our heads / and take the fall instead”
Fucking amazing.
I was explaining all this to fellow reviewer, SoDak, on the phone. I was going on about the torture of our impenetrable and inaccessible haunting memory and loss. He said, “Well, it is called On the Impossible Past.”  It was at that moment that I knew it was a work of utter American rock ‘n’ roll genius.
I realize I have made this album feel like a somber affair. Though it is filled with world weary heartache throughout, it is also filled with hope and youthful energy. I will be blasting On the Impossible Past all summer in my car. It will be too poppy for many of you, but given time it will reveal itself as great literature. I suggest you put the cassette player back in your car. Buy this album on cassette and leave it in all summer, until it breaks, as everything, in time, does.