I knew that there was a good chance that I would dismiss New Moon by listening to it a few times in the background and then forget it, minus a few tracks. I didn’t want this to happen, given my continuous support for the band in reviews and on my radio show for the past year. One of the problems of the infinite availability of music these days is that people like me have the ability to only listen to exactly what they want to hear. I mean, what kind of asshole am I when I go to write a review of an album and my main thought is, “needs more screaming and feedback”? After repeated listens, though, I still want to say that besides a few standout tracks like “Electric,” New Moon is a solid but unmemorable rock record. That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to it, because I also learned that what I like and don’t like is shaped by personal experience more than an album being deemed “good” or “bad” by so-called rock critics.
My difficulties with New Moon mainly stem from the fact that 2011’s Leave Home, the Men’s second full-length and debut for Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, was the album that introduced me to the Men. It was one of those albums that I discovered at exactly the right time, and I buried myself in its abrasive, challenging sound. Even now, I return to the album frequently. I love that it is a tough but rewarding slog. There are spaces of just noise and there are ugly bodily functions, like the cough on “L.A.D.O.C.H.” that is just as percussive and jarring as the sparing drums. An overarching dirty, post-hardcore aesthetic complete with (mostly) screamed vocals and squealing feedback tenuously holds the album together.
I even tolerated how some of Leave Home’s songs sounded derivative, mostly because they drew from so many genres I rarely object to, like punk, krautrock, and the shoegazing psychedelia of Spacemen 3. It was fascinating to witness the band working through the building blocks of a sound that took the history of indie, punk, and classic rock, and played it loose and loud. It’s not blind idol worship, like Foxygen’s wrongheaded “I saw George Harrison wear striped pants and a top hat, so I bought striped pants and a top hat” approach. In fact, my favorite quality of the Men is still their utter disdain for the typical bullshit associated with some rock bands. They barely have a name, I don’t know or care what they look like, what clothes they wear, or what kind of guitars they play.
But the Men disowned Leave Home before its follow-up, Open Your Heart, was even released. My heart sank reading their “Rising” interview on Pitchfork when guitarist Mark Perro dismissed the album as “so loud and chaotic and… all over the place” and promised that the band was going be “more positive” from then on. The move from experimental to accessible is natural for most bands: as Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü said in Our Band Could Be Your Life, first you play as loud and fast as possible (i.e. Land Speed Record), and then you don’t. The Men were ready to try something new and hopefully become more mature in the process. Two albums later, I still might not be.
The beginning of Open Your Heart confirmed this inevitable shift in style. The Men don’t fuck around with introductory tracks; they fully announce their intentions in the first seven minutes of an album. Leave Home’s first track, “If You Leave…” builds quietly for the first three minutes, and then assaults the listener with the slinking rhythm of a fuzzy guitar and drums that sound enormous. The only chanted, drawn-out lyrics are: “Die/I would die/I would die…” fade into the effects-laden instrumentation. In contrast, Open Your Heart’s first side starts with two big, cheesy rock numbers, “Turn it Around” and “Animal,” though the latter still has crazed, shouted vocals. These were shorter songs with something kind of approaching a verse/chorus structure, but not totally objectionable. On the rest of the album, I enjoyed some of the decisions the band made to expand their sound further, like the motorik beat of “Oscillation” and the newfound musical tightness of their instrumental numbers, especially “Ex-Dreams.”
I admitted that it showed growth, but I was overall slightly disappointed with Open Your Heart. It simply did not affect me personally the way Leave Home did. “Candy” still makes my soul sink, and the novelty of the band had already begun to fade. Seeing the Men live last summer didn’t help, either. I expected a face-melting onslaught of noise at least a few times during their set. Instead, their set lacked energy and sounded much too similar. Granted, it was a typical 95-degree day at a music festival, the crowd was mostly waiting for Kendrick Lamar, and the Men took the stage directly after a typically excellent show from Thee Oh Sees. Later that summer, I comforted myself by tightening my grip on the past with the reissue of the Men’s even-noisier first full-length LP Immaculada via Deranged, a Canadian hardcore label.
So I approached New Moon with this tangle of emotions and experiences coloring my reception of the album, coupled with the desire to not lose what remained of their old sound. The first track, “Open the Door” begins with piano that reminds me vaguely of “Till the Morning Comes” from After the Gold Rush. Instantly, the vocals are as evident as they are during “Candy.” It is immediately followed by “Half Angel Half Light,” which is best described as Flip Your Wig-era Hüsker Dü, except also kind of country. It is interesting that these tracks incorporate more varied instrumentation, including a harmonica and, later on the album, a slide guitar.
The influences that certain tracks on Open Your Heart hinted toward are confirmed by New Moon. The Men’s most recent blog post is characteristically pithy and straightforward. No text, two pictures, and the title is “Suck My Vibe.” It’s two images, one of Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams and the other of The World of Dolly Parton, that explain the country-rock sound of most of these tracks. The other influences I’ve been hearing more than ever are watered-down ‘70s rock bands like Boston or Blue Öyster Cult. New Moon could remind me of lying awake at night in middle school, happily listening to the “Deep Tracks” program on a local classic rock radio station. Instead, it reminds me that I really could go the rest of my life without hearing Boston ever again.
The problem with a lot of bands that change musical styles to one that more heavily favors lyrics is that now I have to pay attention to them. A number of songs, namely “Open the Door,” “Half Angel Half Light,” “The Seeds” and I assume “High and Lonesome” are written for a girl whom the singer loves or loved but is no longer there. I can’t determine if these songs are written from the heart about a real girl, or if they are a regurgitation of a standard rock lyrical tropes. There are some ridiculous lines on Open Your Heart, but “Half Angel Half Light” contains my favorite Men-ism ever: “I’m in a rock band now and we’re on a roll.” It’s so self-aware, but at the time, so very not. I also happen to think that the Men were better suited to shouting than actually trying to carry a tune.
The band’s sound has been condensed and standardized, but at the cost of more of these tracks sounding exactly the same. And, by their third album, some of their tricks are getting old. “Shittin’ with the Shah” from Leave Home is slow until the last minute when it breaks down and finally becomes the fast-paced noise freakout it was building towards. “I Saw Her Face” does the same thing, though without the tension of the former song, as it opens as a standard, slow-paced country-rock number with Tom Petty as a guest vocalist (not really). “Supermoon” is the predictable long album-closing jam, and really nothing remarkable. I enjoy “Without a Face,” “Electric,” and “Freaky,” as basic rock songs, but they’re largely indistinguishable from one another. I am probably the last person you will ever find complaining about sound quality, but I think the lo-fi style of all of these songs does not suit the Men’s new sound at all. The tighter instrumentation and pop format of New Moon is contradicted by the fact that all of it kind of sounds like slush.
A lot of this review seems like I’m trying to find things wrong with the album, but I don’t want to turn people away from listening to the Men so much as examine why New Moon doesn’t appeal to me specifically. To the right person in the right moment, this album could do what Leave Home did for me. It still has the Men’s signature blend of the best of a variety of genres, played openly and honestly as the music that truly appeals to the band. I plan on sticking around for the Men and hope the next time I see them play live they fucking rule. I’ll continue to respect them for making an album that was meaningful to me, and for playing what they like with uncompromised integrity.