ALBUM: After the End
For the better part of two years Merchandise were one of the hottest commodities in independent music. Shrugging offers from any and every worthwhile label, before finally shacking up with legendary 4AD, which foreshadowed an unenviable shift to the tame. However, no one could have predicted the Florida band bearing the name of a Fugazi track, grass-fed on hometown hardcore could make this kind of a leap. Good news is it works.
On “After the End,” Merchandise do not attempt to rediscover their punk aesthetic or try to maintain their DIY card. For all intents and purposes they are a different band now than their formative days. Their 2012 album Children of Desire saw Merchandise exchanging their punk aesthetic for lusher pastures. They’ve referred to After the End as a “formal pop record,” and it recalls layered instrumentation of Boxer era the National, with frontman Carson Cox plays a convincing Matt Berninger. Merchandise draw heavily from 80s synth-pop on After the End. Particularly Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order and the intro to the track “Enemy” sounds like it was pulled from a Duran Duran B-side. Producer Gareth Jones, who has crafted tracks for Depeche Mode and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, provides some punch to many of the songs. Making even some of them unabashedly dancey. Never more so than “Green Lady” which features a dynamic bassline with downright potent percussion. Cox sounds like Tunnel of Love era Bruce Springsteen, crooning of leaving everything he’s even known in the rear view.
Merchandise don’t hesitate to unleash their new sound, throwing you in the deep end with “True Monument.” “True Monument” is Merchandise taking their new sound out for a spin with the dealer plates still on. Wearing their influences on their sleeve, Merchandise craft a wispy ballad of uncaged love to great success. The strength of After the End lies in the album’s arrangement. If you’ve listened to enough music, you know how something as simple as the order of the tracks can give the individual tracks solidarity, or contrarily make the listener feel like they are jamming puzzle pieces together. Merchandise and Jones do a fantastic job giving similar songs their breathing space and while maintaining cohesion over the album’s 44 minutes.
After the End is Merchandise’s stab at something anthemic.. They approach 80’s art-pop with an aura of Florida cool, an almost unwarranted confidence that only helps the listener build trust in handing over the reigns. Many of the songs on After the End tend to sprawl. Building upon a chord progression in the early stages of the song with no clear intention of closure. This is a theme common in some of the highly praised albums this year (ie. “Lost in The Dream” and “Atlas”) but when used on the After the End’s title track can leave the listener bloated with more than enough to be desired. “Life Outside the Mirror” is tailor-made set closer at a festival main stage. The cavalry of soaring synths that closes the track is a bright moment for the album and ushers in Cox’s self-imposed exile from molding himself from others. “Little Killers” is a silky-smooth burner with jangly guitars Albert Hammond Jr. would be proud of. Cox’s lyrics paint age-old scene of a woman and a desperate man clinging on to their youth with white knuckles.
Diving in to this record after only hearing their early work can be like walking inside on a bright summer day. You’re trying to get your bearings and feeling around for a trail or trace of what we remember. Merchandise have delivered 80’s era art-pop without leaving you feeling dusty and reminding you just how much you loved “Disingeneration.” Merchandise approach this galvanizing experiment with such swagger the listener is given no choice but to respect them. They have put this album out as a proclamation of leaving their past behind. Not every band could make this kind of a change and make a record this good. Most bands would not even take the leap. If anything, Merchandise have given us a tiny look into their promising future while they reminisce about their past.
“I’m through with begging for approval, now I’m asking to be free.”