“I’m proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place…
“I’m proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place where they just don’t want anything intelligent”, said Carson Cox, frontman of Merchandise, about their new album After The End and their origins in the stunted, strip-malled and uninspiring Floridian city of Tampa. They emerged out of this “wasteland” in 2012 with the bold and expansive noise/post-punk sounds of their mini-LP Children of Desire. But for their debut on indie behemoths 4AD (Bon Iver, The National, Grimes) they’ve (for the most part) ditched the bleeding and careening industrial epics that had made them one of the most exciting unsigned American bands and opted to clean up their sound by reinventing themselves as a jangly 80s style indie rock band; a move akin to Fugazi remerging as a latter-day incarnation of R.E.M. But, although they have lost most of the spectral and unorthodox instrumentation, the move to more conventional song structures has not dampened the inherent dynamism and complexity of this inventive five-piece.
After The End was recorded over six months in a house the band share in Tampa. A kitsch and pessimistic city, largely made up of pensioners and ramshackle bars, the band had emerged from a vibrant breakneck punk and hardcore scene. Gigs were most often played out in abandoned containers and deserted factory sites where a do-it-yourself attitude had prevailed. Out of that scene however, Merchandise had proved to have larger ambitions than just playing sweaty gigs in metal boxes. Cox is obsessed with the writing and philosophies of luminaries like Rimbaud, Blake and Cocteau. It’s the sort of intellectual training that is a prerequisite to being a moribund post-punk lead singer. But at their best, such as the on the amazing ‘Anxiety’s Door’ they fused deep existentialist saudade over thumping industrial/space rock to make a walk through Tampa at night a harrowing and life-affirming experience. The new album has them zoning in on their essence, which required Cox to conclude that, “experimental [doesn’t] necessarily means difficult”. He goes on to say that, “at this point, it doesn’t matter how angry or distorted you are; it becomes a mask, it doesn’t really express anything”.
That shift is clear on the album that mines the great 80s indie-pop acts such as The Cure, the high-strung turmoil of Echo & the Bunnymen and, particularly in Cox’s murmuring yearn, Morrissey and The Smiths. In equal measure, however, there are the lucid power chords of the hey-day of 80s AM music – an inspiration that notable others such as The War on Drugs used to such successful effect. The band – joined now by a fulltime drummer (they operated with drum machines previously) – comes together for a lusher, fuller sound here. At their lightest, such as on the incredibly catchy lead single ‘Little Killer’, it’s a sound made for road-trips or stadium-sized crowds. Daniel Vasselotti’s wiry guitar strokes flicker over the song as Cox, in his most resigned croon, sings “Little killer, this is what they asked for”. As the first single, it set the stage for a new pop trajectory, but from the buzzing feedback and consuming production details it showed the band had not compromised on their artistry.
It’s a fine line that the band straddles well. On the slow-building ‘True Monument’, which is closest to the rumbling bass sound they created on Children of Desire, the close introspection of Cox is married well with the skyward-aiming guitar lines as he sings about being in the “frigid grip of vanity”. This is in contrast to the military-tinged drumming of the balladry on ‘Looking Glass Waltz’, the rich organs find a love song at its core in the lyrics, “I choose to be nothing at all and I’ll be nothing with you”. It’s a particularly cynical yet sentimental romantic insight and laced with the sort of deadpan that made Morrissey a depressive sex symbol.
But the most impressive aspect of the album is how big Merchandise manage to sound and how easily they make the task seem. The rollicking ‘Enemy’ proves exactly that. As the drums tumble around him and the guitars shuffle with him, Cox is lyrically at his sharpest as he sings, “Patience left you in the ocean/ Reason left you out at sea/ I’m through with begging for approval/ Now I’m asking to be free.” It is one of the highpoints of the album, where Merchandise’s vision comes through with searing clarity. This is equally matched by the dreamy ‘Green Lady’, which opens with the type of retro woodblock percussion last heard on a Billy Joel album. But as the gleaming guitars ascend around the tense production it floats, airless and unencumbered. It is experimental but frank and accessible.
There are moments, however, where this retro approach comes off as kitschy and gimmicky. The ragtime bass line on ‘Telephone’ in particular is one such moment. The six-minute title track teases into almost becoming an epic but doesn’t propel the way old Merchandise epics used to, like the starry gloom of ‘Winter’s Dream’ or the spaced-out fuzz of ‘Roser Park’. The album closes with the acoustic ‘Exile and Ego’ a narrative of a dejected Western pioneer that provides Cox’s most heartfelt vocals and the album’s most tender moment as he sings dejectedly, “help me do what’s right”.
A lot will be made about Merchandise’s transformation, and rightly so. However, the seeds of the band on After The End could readily be seen on the soaring ‘Time’ off of Children of Desire. As such, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. On that journey some of Merchandise’s most exciting qualities have been realigned: most notably, the earthshattering instrumental tumult they used to create. What After The End proves is that, behind that wall of sound, is a band terrified of the world and terrified of themselves; willing to tackle that message through a medium that allows that message to be magnified and not negated. It is a tremendous achievement in and of itself and proves that After The End may not be the album we wanted, but over the course of their budding and promising career, it will probably turn out to be the album we needed.