When you make a career out of writing drinking songs and odes to youth, getting older probably isn’t on your mind. Hard-partying rockers rarely age gracefully—for every Nick Cave, there are hundreds of bands who can’t seem to transition from their heavy-drinking 20s to their 30s and beyond. Hell, Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus is approaching 50 and still sings about hooking up with a 17-year-old on “The Rock Show.”
But unlike other bands who continue to write about teenage rebellion well after their 20th birthdays (think: Green Day), Philadelphia’s The Menzingers age with their fans and detail the struggle of leaving the dive bar life behind as everyone around them matures, contributes to their 401(k)s and settles down. For the most part, The Menzingers’ discography up to this point has been filled with songs about love, heartbreak and drinking, and while Hello Exile (their new album out on Epitaph) explores these same themes, it does so from a different lens. The heartbreak is amplified because of the drinking.
Take lead single “Anna,” a song (presumably) about co-lead singer Greg Barnett’s longtime girlfriend with whom he shares an apartment. It opens with a still-fresh memory of the couple laughing and dancing in the kitchen “after drinking too much cheap red wine.” But things change quickly when she “got a great big new promotion” and now she “travel[s] so damn much / It’s like our studio apartment is just a place to keep your stuff.” The Gaslight Anthem-esque chorus is a plea for his partner to simply return home: “I have so much to tell ya / Please come back to Philadelphia / This place isn’t the same without you, Anna.” It’s the best “this city’s been dead since you’ve been gone” refrain since The Dismemberment Plan wrote “The City” in 1999. It’ll be a big sing-along moment at Menzingers shows for years to come.
But things turn dark seven songs later on “I Can’t Stop Drinking” as we get a peek into what their relationship looks like when they’re actually together. “When the party’s over, Sunday morning wakes up sober / Begs for me to start up again / I’m whiskey drunk in the Shop Rite parking lot / I’m waiting while Anna buys milk and eggs,” Barnett sings with a hint of regret over the slowest guitar riff on the record. Anna may have been along for the ride with that cheap red wine earlier in their relationship, but she’s since moved on while Barnett is still stuck in his own ways, beating hangovers with a hair-of-the-dog mentality. The next line is as damning of a personal reflection as any you’ve heard all year: “Sometimes I wonder why she hasn’t found another / One that her girlfriends would recommend.”
Later on “I Can’t Stop Drinking,” Barnett invites her to join (“I’m cheap beer drunk in a bar off Passyunk / I’ll be here until the lights come up again / Feel free to join me if you’re bored or feeling lonely / I could sure use the company / I miss you so much when I was your drunk lush”), knowing full well that she’s got work in the morning. College and the twilight years following have ended for Barnett, and now his relationship is starting to suffer—the lifestyle his band long promoted that inspired rousing heartland rock songs has finally become a detriment to his own well-being. And he can’t seem to move past it.
And it’s not just in his romantic relationships. On “High School Friend,” Barnett sings about reuniting with a long-lost friend from his childhood, “getting fucked up” and “wondering where all the good times went.” It plays as a Springsteen-type anthem, but it has more than a spoonful of sadness: Much of their conversation turns towards those who have since passed away and now lie underneath “a little white cross just popping out from the bend.” Their hometown in Wayne County may not have changed much—and neither Barnett nor his high school friend—but things are wildly different everywhere else. But Barnett has a bit of optimism and sympathy for others in his situation as he sings, “Don’t let the overwhelming sorrow shred all hopes of tomorrow / Don’t let them tell you how to live your life.”
While the 12 songs on Hello Exile don’t sonically deviate too much from the rest of The Menzingers’ previous six albums from the past decade or so, it offers a level of introspection relatively unheard in their genre. It’s an honest portrayal of where they are at this point in their life: not ready to settle down and give up the 4 A.M. nights at the dive bar down the street, but also realizing that those around them are in the process of doing so.
The shift between your hard-drinking 20s and supposedly-calmer 30s is a hard transition to make for anyone, let alone for the lead singer of a rock band who works in an industry that yields free beer every night on tour where the Philadelphia band commonly “sit[s] in the back of the theater / Binging everything that’s left to drink.” But Hello Exile shows that writing music about growing up doesn’t have to be focused on adolescence, teenage years or the transition into the “real world.” It can also be just as important to illustrate the dreaded period where you truly have to grow up, something that can be just as much of a mental struggle as puberty or graduating from college.