Published Nov 19, 2018As the Menzingers rip their way through a headlining set at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre, their high-energy, sing-along set is almost enough to distract you from the wistful nostalgia embedded in their songs and help you overcome all these anxieties of adulthood. Almost.
At their best, the Philadelphia group pluck unique, lived-in details of their lives, and piece them together to recreate scenes from their most romanticized memories, tieing it all together with a tidy line or two about how things will just never be the way they used to be.
"Waiting for your life to start then you die," they sing in "House on Fire." "I know the old you, and you know the old me," goes the chorus of "Lookers." "All good things should fall apart," they repeat throughout "Good Things."
The Menzingers' immediate, surface-level appeal is their weaving of a hyper-nostalgic, Americana aesthetic into dozens of big, catchy punk songs. That much is true to one degree or another for the rest of their grizzled, 30-and-up peers in the Springsteen-core club like the Gaslight Anthem, Restorations, the Hold Steady and Japandroids. But the Menzingers' use of nostalgia is not just a stylistic choice, but a way of looking at life itself. When you hear them churn out their greatest hits — and they have far more top-notch songs than a band of their tenure might normally have — the same themes come up again and again, and they end up being potent reminders of just how little clue you have about what you want your life to be.
The Menzingers' live show itself is loud, passionate and authentic; they're not committed too strongly to technical perfection, nor are they interested in lollygagging between songs. The opening stretch of "After the Party" into "House on Fire," then "Good Things" into "Burn After Writing," then "Lookers," before finally taking their first break, is an untouchable set of punk anthems. The same goes for the back-to-back of "The Obituaries," "Your Wild Years," "Mexican Guitars" and "Nice Things," four more of the heavy hitters from their catalogue.
What also jumps out is that the band's set list is an apparent acknowledgment that of their three most recent albums, 2014's Rented World isn't a crowd-pleaser on the same level as their 2012 breakout record On the Impossible Past or last year's spiritual successor After the Party; on stage in Toronto, they played only three from the former and eight from each of the latter. It goes to show how good those two records really are, though it wouldn't hurt to throw in a couple oldies — fan favourite "I Was Born," for example, which does seem to have made the occasional appearance on their recent tours, for those hoping to hear it.
One interesting thing about the Menzingers' nostalgic outlook is that, professionally, things seem to only be getting better for them. Granted, life in a punk band very rarely extends into retirement age, but as a band, they seem to be bigger than they've ever been. Case in point: They sold out a headlining gig north of the border at the 1,350-cap Phoenix, which had already been moved from the 620-cap Mod Club because of strong ticket sales.
More notably, there's not much in the Menzingers' songs that suggests that what they did in their youth was conclusively better than anything they could do now or in the future. These songs look back fondly on such things as getting drunk on porch steps, getting drunk and doing the dishes, getting drunk and learning songs on the guitar, or getting drunk and just being bored, doing nothing at all. And you might even do the same, too. It's recorded in your memory as the good times, and they're ones you'll never get back because things are different now. Years from now, you might even look back on days like today in the exact same way.
What this suggests, and ultimately what almost all the Menzingers' songs are about in one way or another, is that the purest happiness is intrinsically linked to youth and possibility. In this framework, happiness must always be in constant decline, because every day, every month, every year, you get a little bit older, your future gets a little bit shorter, and your memory — the fond ones you'll never be able to re-experience, the regrets you'll never be able to shake, the losses from which you'll never be able to entirely recover — gets a little bit fuller.
That's a sad way to think about life. The Menzingers seem to be aware of that, and they both allow themselves these thoughts and do their best to free themselves from them. If you're feeling all that pressure, and hear your anxieties echoed by someone else, and you're singing along with hundreds of people who likely identify with the songs because they feel the exact same way, the hopeful side of the Menzingers' lyrics begins to stand out.
"We're still breathing, and the party ain't over," they sing on "Midwestern States." "I'm just freaking out, yeah I'll be fine," they admit on "The Obituaries." "But after the party, it's me and you," goes the chorus of "After the Party."
The idea is that happiness is deeper than what your selective memory would have you believe, and that it is not, in fact, in perpetual decline. What you need is people you love and who love you back, the willingness to work together to make the life you want, and the realization that you've still got plenty of life left to live.
So when the Menzingers close out the show with "Tellin' Lies," and they repeatedly ask the question that kicks off After the Party's theme of existential angst — "Where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over?" — you know by this point that the answer is: wherever the hell we want.