Review: The Menzingers Take on Existential Worries in ‘Hello Exile’

Hello Exile - The Menzingers
Hello Exile - The Menzingers Album Art
With new album ‘Hello Exile’, The Menzingers express all the pain and pleasure you experience in your early 30s.
Listen: ‘Hello Exile’ – The Menzingers

The New York Times review of After the Party begins, “Voices get hoarse. Muscles shrivel. Anger subsides. Memories fade. When a punk ages, it’s not always graceful.”  Along with the release of After the Party, there was a sense that “The Menzingers have grown up,” and the Times review confirms that, but as you listen to that record, you don’t really get that sense.  From the ska-infused “Tellin’ Lies” to the mosh-inducing anthem “Bad Catholics” to the love songs “Your Wild Years” or “Lookers,” there’s more familiarity than difference to the guys who chain smoke in diners while knocking back Pabst Blue Ribbons.

Hello Exile shows where After the Party told.  The record serves as a mature and intimate look about where you go once your twenties are over.  If After the Party was the realization that they were getting older, Hello Exile is a more intimate look at what aging entails for The Menzingers.

Hello Exile - The Menzingers
Hello Exile – The Menzingers Album Art

What’s most noticeable throughout Hello Exile is the furthered inclusion of classic rock and Americana music.  While there’s always been a Gaslight Anthem-like gaze on denim, diners, and muscle cars on road trips, The Menzingers have typically stuck with writing punk songs with the occasional touch of ska or acoustic song.  Exile brings more variation to their songs inviting in alt-country, Americana, and more classic rock than before.

Crunchy guitars on “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” and big riffs on “Last to Know” conjure both grunge and 70’s hard rock.  “I Can’t Stop Drinking” and the title track are both country tracks that have more in common with Jason Isbell than Rancid.  “Strain Your Memory” taps to a similar beat as “American Girl,” where “Farewell Youth” closes the record out with a massive 80’s Springsteen influence.  While these influences have always been infused into The Menzos’ sound, they now bring them to the forefront, which elevates the band from your record collection’s equivalent of drinking buddies to a certain level of elder statesmen of the scene.

With this newfound confidence to explore new genres, songwriters Tom May and Greg Barnett have also expanded their voices as lyricists.  The album’s two most political numbers don’t teeter around the way that the band’s earlier political tracks had.  The album begins with the bold “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” which includes one of the most heartfelt and honest indictments of the current administration in a pop song: “What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?”  While The Menzingers have written politically charged anthems before, few are as direct as this.

Later, May tackles climate change in the ripping “Strawberry Mansion.”  Where Barnett sounds confused and concerned in “America,” May sounds furious to watch the planet burn.  He commands everyone “Back to hell, where we belong.”  For a band that’s so often personal, it’s a refreshing anthem that can scare you into doing the work to combat climate change.

Watch: “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” – The Menzingers

In their 30s, the band who once sang, “I’m gonna get in fighting fit/ I’m gonna let my liver play offense” and “I took the weight of it all out for a drink/ And then we drove back drunk through the busy city streets” have re-examined their relationships with alcohol a little bit.  While there’s plenty of songs to raise a glass to throughout Hello Exile, one of the most moving tracks is the late cut “I Can’t Stop Drinking.”  It’s a straight country song where Barnett addresses sometimes that he’s felt that the sauce has caused some speed bumps in his relationship.  He croons, “Sometimes I wonder why she hasn’t found another, one that her girlfriends would recommend.”  While there’s definitely a romantic view of heavy-drinking rock bands, sometimes the booze is masking or the cause of personal problems for the musicians.  Barnett longs for a time when the drinking was more fun than routine towards the end of the song:

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
You knew me so well
I knew you half as well
Love’s a cruel cruel joke,
When the tools in the shed can’t fix what’s broke
So you leave it broke
Cause I know what you’re thinking
But I can’t stop drinking

Still, the ruminations don’t last too long.  In “London Drugs,” Barnett seeks for answers outside of self-prescribed painkillers in a rousing song that’s as catchy as “The Obituaries.”  He sings, “If I don’t change now, I never will/ What’s it gonna take to fix me? I don’t want your London drugs.”  It’s active seeking to better oneself where “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is the ruminations on the problems one wants to change.

A 30 year-old’s reflections on life are distinctly more concerned than those of the 20-somethings who bang around diners and bum cigarettes after VFW shows.  Songs like “Hello Exile” and “Strangers Forever” both tackle the awkwardness of confronting the ghost of a long over relationship.  “High School Friend” and “Farewell Youth” both face the uncomfortable truth that we often only see the ones we love at funerals, and we often have an odd sense of familiarity with the places we come from.

We come back for holidays and funerals
So much has changed, but Wayne County’s still the same
Driving ’round 191, as our old memory of someone
As a little white cross just poppin’ out from the bend
I was getting fucked up with a high school friend
Wondering where all the good times went

It’s strange in the ways that loss is a binding force.  While it strips us of friends and family, it also brings the living together.  The album’s best song is closing track “Farewell Youth,” which equates the loss of a friend with the loss of innocence and many realizations about the ways people change:

The grief starts when bumpin’ into friends turned acquaintances
We stumble around the small talk
We break the silence with Jameson,
But once, we were inseparable
We were the only punks in town
We spent every weekend raising hell
In the basement of your parent’s house
But we’re older now
Farewell youth, my friend I hardly got to know you.
I was always hanging out with the older kids.
Always in a rush, but I was never sure from what
I was always hanging out with the older kids.
Watch: “Strangers Forever” – The Menzingers

There’s no enlightening strength more powerful than death.  Barnett views life’s fragility at the funerals he’s had to face over the years:

I couldn’t get enough of growing up
I saw my childhood flash before me
In the depth of your closed eyes
At an Irish wake, we celebrate by trying not to cry.

It’s easy to ignore passage of time through your teens and twenties, but the passing of friends is the actual manifestation of it in flesh, and it’s hard to not reflect on your own mortality when it feels like it’s lying in front you.

Farewell Youth: A Conversation with Greg Barnett of The Menzingers


The worst thing a band can do is stagnant.  With the mature reflections on aging and a varied musical palate, The Menzingers have delivered their most versatile (and maybe most likely to appeal to a wide audience) record yet.  This is the most intensely personal Menzingers record yet.  Greg Barnett and Tom May bear more aspects of their personal lives and beliefs in Hello Exile than before, and it’s not always a romantic picture.  Punks may not always age gracefully, but no one really ages gracefully, and The Menzingers are here to remind us of that.

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Hello Exile

an album by The Menzingers

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