Voices get hoarse. Muscles shrivel. Anger subsides. Memories fade. When a punk ages, it’s not always graceful. Greg Barnett, the frontman of the Menzingers, knows that all too well — “We put miles on these old jean jackets,” he sings — and is looking to find a dignified way through middle age.
“After the Party” is the fifth full-length album by his band, the Menzingers, a shaggy punk band from Scranton, Pa., that for more than a decade has been snotty but not wistful, driven and not much for the rearview mirror. It has honed an extremely reliable and almost romantic take on blue-collar rock, largely avoiding the lyrical in favor of throbbing, pulsing id.
But this album, which comes three years after its last one, captures Mr. Barnett torn between forward motion and backward longing, confronting his weaknesses and hoping that confession will become salvation. That task is loudest on the elegiac “Lookers,” a song about decay in all its forms: physical, emotional, spiritual. “Lost in a picture frame, the way our bodies used to behave,” Mr. Barnett sings, leading into a tale of intimates who look magical in memories: “You little Kerouac, always running like Dean and Sal/Always waiting on a freight train, always looking for a story to tell.” (Here, and on “After the Party,” the Menzingers recall the New Jersey band the Gaslight Anthem, early 2010s masters of nostalgic punk melancholia with a whiff of Springsteen.)
Throughout the album, Mr. Barnett can’t decide whether growing old is a joke or a tragedy — all he knows is it has left him unsettled. “Oh yeah, everything is terrible when buying marijuana makes you feel like a criminal/When your new friends take a joke too literal, making you feel like the bad guy,” he whines on “Tellin’ Lies,” his voice some scraped-out version of tough. But on the sublime “Midwestern States,” he identifies his malaise as part of larger social forces, sketching a story about a young couple bouncing from couch to couch, unable to get a decent foothold on the American dream: “She got her hours slashed and my unemployment’s drying up fast/We both got worthless diplomas from worthless universities/Two bachelors in worthless studies but at least it made our parents happy.”
The passing of time has altered this band’s songwriting for the better. What once arrived in raw splashes of energy has been thickened, complicated and smoothed. Tom May, who writes and sings some of the songs, even flirts with a touch of abstraction on “Thick as Thieves,” which recalls the power pop-rock of the early 1980s. “I held up a liquor store/Demanded top-shelf metaphors,” he sings.
What keeps Mr. Barnett grounded and continuing to march ahead is the rest of the band: Joe Godino on drums, Eric Keen on bass, Mr. May May on guitar and keyboards. They create a more varied squall here than on earlier albums, by turns sloppy (“Tellin’ Lies”), pulverizing (“Your Wild Years”), spry (“Lookers”) and sludgy (“The Bars”).
Late in the album comes a pair of songs back to back, “Bad Catholics” and “Your Wild Years,” in which Mr. Barnett reminisces about old loves and muses on how time changes them, even if it doesn’t change him quite as much. On “Bad Catholics,” he encounters an ex living a new, more polished life: “You thanked God that I found my way and introduced me to oh what’s his name.” And “Your Wild Years” is the most romantic song here, about that persistent sense of not being good enough — something that when you were young, was cute, but as you get older, is a tumor that grows and grows:
I toss and turn at 4 in the morning
Petrified of where our future is going
’Cause you’re the kinda girl that deserves the world
And I’m just the kinda guy that promises the world.
An earlier version of this review misidentified the member of the Menzingers who wrote and sang the track “Thick as Thieves.” He is Tom May, not Greg Barnett.