The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past (10th Anniversary Edition) Music Album Reviews

The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past (10th Anniversary Edition) Music Album Reviews
This 2012 LP, newly reissued, is the Scranton punk band’s definitive album—the record that inaugurated a signature vernacular of doomed romance and self-loathing nostalgia.

In 2011, after touring the country opening for Title Fight and Touché Amoré, the Menzingers went home exhausted to write their third album, On the Impossible Past. It was the record that eventually took them to the top of the bill. Cherished by fans, it’s the band’s definitive statement (although I’m as likely to reach for 2017’s After the Party)—the one that inaugurated a signature vernacular of doomed romance with diner waitresses and self-loathing nostalgia. Heartland rock for the world-weary and downwardly mobile, On the Impossible Past is (to paraphrase Dan Ozzi) a premature elegy for youth and for a child’s conception of America—the kind you might learn as a white kid from northeastern Pennsylvania, a false promise fading to adult disillusionment. “Maybe I’m not dying, I’m just living in decaying cities,” goes a prophetic-sounding line from “The Obituaries.” Spiritually, what’s the difference?

Buffing away the hardcore and Irish punk inspirations that flecked the band’s first two albums, On the Impossible Past is tragic, melodic pop-punk comfort food. The lines become clearer, the frames smaller, until the band is working in miniature, squeezing novellas into restaurant booths: “You’ll get seated as diners or lovers, you’ll get the check as friends for the better.” The tensions in their music arise in the space between literary aspiration and the urge to just scream, between abstract political circumstances and the mundane ways they encroach on life. So heady are the fleeting highs of “Ava House”—“You can’t touch us, we’re untouchable”—that you might forget it’s another elegy, for a recession-era Philadelphia punk venue with a shaky floor that had already shut down by the time they recorded it.

But the bigger picture is barely visible in On the Impossible Past, obliterated by sure bets on the short term. In Nabokov’s Lolita the phrase is “drunk on the impossible past,” and this is undeniably drinking music. The drink of choice is beer, cheapest you got, consumed on concrete stoops, Brooklyn rooftops, and behind the wheel of the “American muscle car,” a flashy symbol that only feels more obvious 10 years later. When the car drives into the first scene you already know it’s going to get totaled by the end of act two, and that it belongs to the singer’s friend, or ex-girlfriend, only serves to underscore this band’s narrative position as permanent underdogs. “I held the wheel while you drank and drove,” moans Greg Barnett on the title track, riding shotgun through a brief, disastrous interlude that ties together several of the record’s paralleling stories of self-destruction.

In the Menzingers’ lineup of dual guitarists and lead singers—Barnett’s tuneful, expressive vocals alongside Tom May’s rawer roar—there’s an inherent community that’s key to the band’s charm. At Le Poisson Rouge in New York City this month, May took over some vocal parts for Barnett, who’d lost his voice, but he didn’t sing them as himself; his timbre warped into the more melodious shapes of his bandmate, as if tapping into a shared consciousness. Within the world of the songs, though, you rarely have the sense that the two men are aware of one another; even in ragged harmony, they seem almost like two actors portraying the same role, with personas so sympathetic you’re afraid to ask what sent these ex-girlfriends running for the hills. Maybe it was all the drinking. Or maybe that’s just the way it goes, now; your friends grow up and move away for better opportunities, or they go to war and come home shattered, and you, in the words of a different band of tristate good-boy punks, will always be a loser. In “Casey,” another dedication to a restaurant server, I sometimes imagine a semi-unrequited crush on a coworker at a dead-end job, the person who when they finally quit left you wondering what you were even doing with your life.

That’s another unsteady comfort of Menzingers songs: the permission to have feelings even though it’s all been done before, the sound of machismo in retreat; this is the band’s most welcoming and quintessentially “emo” aspect. There’s no posturing, and (more Nabokovian of them) if the narrator is unreliable it’s only because he believes himself. As in America, the truth is hidden a little deeper, in the many allusions to “the shame, the fear, the guilt that’s tough to mention,” as Barnett sings on “Sun Hotel,” a memorial to another defunct local dive and a pretty good song in unfortunate violation of the rule that if you’re going to rip off Leonard Cohen, you’d better write an incredible one.

The new 10th-anniversary reissue is accompanied by a disc of acoustic demos, known as On the Possible Past and originally distributed in an edition of 1,000. Possible represents a rough draft of about half the final album, with the two opening songs in place and several key tracks (“The Obituaries,” “Gates,” “Nice Things”) yet to be added, and for the most part it takes the aggressively strummed approach of a Punk Goes Acoustic project. The biggest surprise—much remarked upon by fans over the years—is the early alternate “Sun Hotel,” which borrows even more from Cohen yet is strangely more affecting. It’s softer, reworking the intimate vignette of “Chelsea Hotel #2” as a behind-the-scenes portrait of friends of the band. “Dan played ‘Casey’ while sipping on a Mickey’s,” Barnett sings. Just then, the suggestion of companionship is so real it fills the room. Turns out “the loneliest corner in the whole world” has a corner store.

Upon the album’s release, Barnett described it as “essentially an accidental concept record,” which feels accurate to the self-contained storytelling, if not the poetic license the term often implies. Because even when the writing is more evocative than literal, the songs are realistic first, the type of fiction that’s truer than fact. If the band has struggled to move on from the fatalistic allure of the Impossible Past world—if “The plot does not develop/It ends where it begins,” from “Burn After Writing,” has at times felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy—consider it a failure of subject as much as author. The Menzingers’ colloquial punk forms and plainspoken lyrics situate personal disappointment and dysfunction in wider contexts, like a persistent societal failure to fix anything that matters to young people, then or now. That’s the world where we live. With On the Impossible Past, they located one crack in dystopia approximately somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania and tried to pry it open bare-handed.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past (10th Anniversary Edition) Music Album Reviews The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past (10th Anniversary Edition) Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on November 19, 2022 Rating: 5


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