The Menzingers Give Optimism a Shot on “Hello Exile”
Frontman Greg Barnett unpacks the tonal shifts in the Scranton punks’ forthcoming sixth album.
On the last record The Menzingers put out, 2017’s After the Party, one of the lines fans clung to most appeared on the first track: “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” It properly prefaced the journey that album takes—the exploration of youth and reckoning with growing up. Hello Exile, the band’s forthcoming sixth effort, poses a similar question right off the bat: “How do I steer my early thirties / Before I shipwreck before I’m forty?” The Philadelphia four-piece and their tribulations haven’t changed much, but they have more to offer, including consolation and even some occasional optimism.
Since 2012’s On the Impossible Past, their lyrics have shed the raw nihilism that led to that record opening with a resigned voice confessing, “I’ve been having a horrible time.” Hello Exile tries on a new attitude, one that can be explained through the name alone. “For me, it’s definitely a double-sided meaning,” Greg Barnett, lead vocalist and guitarist, explains after mentioning that the band always tries to leave room for interpretation. “I think that a lot of the themes on the album are dealing with separation, desperation, anxiety, fear of the future, and fear of the past—and there’s a loneliness that runs through these songs. That sums up a lot of the feelings of exile—of being separated from things and people that you love. We wanted to take that title and obviously have all the fear and loneliness that sums up the word ‘exile,’ and make it an acceptance of what’s happening and looking toward the future and finding some answers to those meanings.”
With the second track, “Anna,” we already get a love song: Reminiscing on the time a lover first moved in, Barnett sings, “I have so much to tell ya / Please come back to Philadelphia / This place ain’t the same without you, Anna.” Snapshots of getting wine-drunk and dancing in the kitchen evoke a strong dose of wistfulness, but it’s hopeful enough to make you believe she will come back. His voice is certain and loving, and he even encourages her, “Take as long as you need to take.” “There’s a lot of songs on the album where the story is going in a way where they’re looking for some type of answer,” Barnett says. “I think that we want to keep it positive. Even if you don’t have all the answers, as long as you’re searching for them, or searching for something, then you’re on the right path.”
“I Can’t Stop Drinking” is one of those tracks where you wonder if it’s an exception to this positivity, with its last lines declaring, “Well, love’s a cruel, cruel joke when the tools in the shed can’t fix what’s broke / So you leave it broke.” The whole song reads like a drawn-out confession, one that would occur in church or therapy, where it almost feels invasive to listen in. It’s hard to see any light here, with the imagery of empty beer bottles conjuring feelings of guilt.
“I like writing songs that feel like they can be short stories. I think place and characters and things like that are obviously important to a short story, and a lot of our songs take that feel.”
It can feel the same way with the opening anthem, “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” a track detailing political bewilderment. In the second verse, Barnett takes us on a quick road trip through the Bible Belt, pointing to the odd Jesus billboards and asking, “How’d His words confuse themselves?” It calls to mind the frivolous yet morally stirring plotline of “Bad Catholics” on After the Party, where Barnett sang unapologetically about getting stoned and running from the cops all night with a “sweet church girl.” However, this time around he presents a question for contemplation—both spiritual and political.
“For politics to get into the music, I definitely think that’s inevitable—everything is political,” says Barnett. “We’ve kind of always been a political band. We write about it, maybe not in such a straightforward way as this song, but a lot of the storytelling themes are things that are related to politics.” When it comes down to it, “America” is not a Sex Pistols–style anarchist manifesto, but rather just another expression of pain and frustration. They’re looking more inward than anywhere else, asking, “Ain’t it a shame what we choose to ignore? / What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?”
Aside from being a blatantly American band—from reckoning with the controversy of current national politics to portraying a beer-crushing variety of American party culture—they’ve also lodged their nativity to Scranton, Pennsylvania into their persona. The scenes in Hello Exile can easily be pinpointed on a map, and a lot of their travels can be traced. It’s evident that the locations sprinkled throughout the album are more than just physical landscapes—they’re grounded in memories associated with intense emotions and significant people. “High School Friend” is set in Wayne County, where Barnett and his old friend used to partake in reckless shenanigans. In the second verse, he conveys the power of the county in a few lines that span years: “We left town the minute we turned eighteen / We moved to different corners of the country / Now we come back for holidays and funerals / So much has changed, but Wayne County is still the same.”
“I like writing songs that feel like they can be short stories,” muses Barnett, who frequently draws inspiration from literature. “I think place and characters and things like that are obviously important to a short story, and a lot of our songs take that feel.” He adds, “You can visualize it better. Even if somebody’s never driven on the PA turnpike, you can imagine what it would look like,” referring to the opening line in the final track, “Farewell Youth.”
It feels right to end up in Scranton on “Farewell Youth,” circling back home to grieve the past. The lyrics read like a eulogy, and it’s hard not to tear up. However, there is hope, though it’s not immediate or obvious. While he’s digging up these memories as if scrounging through a box of outdated records and empty liquor bottles, the pain does not signify hopelessness. Acceptance is on the horizon. “I saw my childhood flash before me in the death of your closed eyes / At your Irish wake we celebrate by trying not to cry.” FL