As a critic, it’s tempting to try to force a band like The Men into some kind of narrative, whether that be a narrative of opposition to the current hypnogogic post-chillwavestep musical zeitgeist, or a narrative of rebirth for a long-buried DIY punk ethos. But the truth is, through all the years of shifting trends and fads, guitar bands have always been with us — or have we forgotten about such year-end-listable artists as Titus Andronicus, Fucked up, HEALTH, No Age, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and Marnie Stern? 2012 will not be the year that the punk breaks again, and The Men are not the lone standard-bearers shrieking their feedback into an otherwise guitarless void. They are just a really talented band emerging from an unbroken stream of similarly talented bands.
We somehow managed to side-step the whole “rebirth of rock music” discussion last year when their sophomore album (or junior album, depending on who is keeping count) Leave Home wormed its way onto everyone’s “best of” lists. But now that The Men have decided to gift us with yet another 10 glorious songs — and rest assured, friends, the songs that make up Open Your Heart are most certainly glorious — it’s a conversation that’s become sadly inevitable.
Leave Home captivated us with the thoroughness of its punk rock bibliography, but more so with the ingenious way it mixed and matched its sources. A blistering post-hardcore fist-pumper like “Bataille” could sit comfortably next to a spacey psych jam like “(),” which in turn sounded totally at home rubbing elbows with all six yowling, sputtering minutes of “L.A.D.O.C.H.” The fact that the band contained three different singers who each wrote their own songs made The Men a pretty hard group to pin down. Open Your Heart won’t make that task much easier. While it withdraws from the most brutal extremes of its predecessor, the group continues to defy easy stylistic categorization.
Given the ferocity of their previous outings, one might be tempted to read the record’s title with a measure of irony, but, as with everything they’ve done up to this point, The Men seem totally sincere. With a few exceptions, Open Your Heart is an album of love songs. Opening Track “Turn It Around” lays down the rules with one of the band’s sweetest lyrics to date: “Oh, baby girl I’m gonna find you/ When the truth comes out/ I wanna see you when you try so hard/ I wanna see you when you turn it around.” Those giddy, butterflies-in-the-stomach sentiments course through the entire record, from the lovelorn “Please Don’t Go Away” to the desperately pleading title track — hell, even the searing cow-poke punk thrasher “Animal” is just a rough-and-ready ode to getting it on. Then, of course, there’s “Candy,” a 70s rock-inspired acoustic ballad that pauses for some wistful remembrance of a lost lover in the midst of extolling the virtues of living in the moment.
But, while we may be dealing with a kinder, gentler incarnation of The Men, it’s one that’s every bit as wild and unpredictable as before. The two-song combo of “Country Song” and “Oscillation” may be the group’s most ambitious space-rock exploration to date. The rambling, pastoral strains of the former slowly dissolve into a shimmery cloud of feedback that gradually hastens into a krautrock canter in the latter track, and eventually flowers into a joyous rock explosion. A weird country and western influence creeps into the album by way of the persistent use of slide guitar in quieter moments like “Candy” and “Country Song,” and in the more raucous “Animal” or the droning “Presence.” But the most delightful and unexpected digression of the album would undoubtedly be “Please Don’t Go Away,” a pop punk gem drowned in a shoegazey haze of guitar feedback and softly trilling “ooh-ooh-ooh”s. It gels into a song that is at once muscular and indescribably delicate.
If you had told me six months ago that the follow-up to Leave Home would jettison The Men’s harsher noise rock leanings in favor of an acoustic ballad and some slide guitars, my heart would have sunk. But honestly, there’s not a thing about this album that I would have liked to see done any differently. The songwriting is stronger; it maintains the distinctive qualities of their previous efforts but drills down closer to the essential core of who they are as a band beneath all of their indie rock hero worship. The apparent effortlessness with which they put it together (and in such a short time!) only makes it that much more remarkable.
And those are really the things that matter here, not whether The Men’s embrace of the guitar is some kind of intrinsic indictment of the current musical climate dominated by synth or whether their widespread critical acclaim will spark a resurgence of guitar-driven music. The Men make the kind of loud guitar music that they like to listen to, and it’s no surprise that a lot of other people feel the same way. The Men aren’t out to redeem or revitalize guitar-driven rock music; they’re too busy being really awesome at it.