The first time I’d heard of Merchandise was the day after a poorly-flyered show held in the dingy, tagged-up back room of a neighborhood dive. A friend asked if I’d gone, and in reply, I admitted to knowing nothing about them. “They sound like Morrissey burning in hell,” he told me. Though a little too on-the-nose, it’s a description that has nevertheless stuck with me since. When I finally remembered to check out their then-most recent album, Children of Desire, I was floored. It had as much to do with Merchandise’s uncanny ability to recreate a first-wave post-punk and shoegaze atmosphere without drawing too heavily from any one band as it did with the sheer fact that I’d discovered new music through literal word-of-mouth, rather than from some anonymous internet tastemaker.
And when I heard that they had a new album following so closely on the heels of an album as shaggy and lovable as Children of Desire, I was excited. It’s rare to not have to temper my enthusiasm, to not worry about the fragile architecture of hype, when it comes to new music. Only while listening to Totale Nite for the first time did I realize that there is always cause for concern. Expectation is often built externally, but disappointment is, without fail, an internal construct.
Over the course of the month since, I’ve grappled with my feelings towards Totale Nite and Merchandise in general. It’s impolite to express displeasure with friends and family members for doing what they want, rather than what you want them to do; why should that hold any less true for a group of musicians you’ve never met or have even provided some small measure of financial support? I do not love any part of Totale Nite as much as I do/did parts of Children of Desire. But that’s a relative judgement. The production is murkier this time around, an act of deliberate obtuseness, and that might be someone else’s cup of tea, but when paired with slack and shapeless material, as it is here, the effect is more numbing than intoxicating for me.
Carson Cox still sings very much like the last of the famous international playboys, but his voice, lilting and fey, sounds as if recorded in a tin can. It never meshes with the buzzy, reverberant instrumentation. Even on the best of Totale Nite’s material, Cox’s voice is smothered in loveliness. “I’ll Be Gone,” which at times sounds as if snatched straight from Among My Swan, uses vocal overdubs aharmonically, which only fosters disorientation for the listener while creating a sense of distance, an ironic remove from an otherwise emotional experience. “Winter’s Dream,” the final song on Totale Nite, is similarly dreamy, but the largely wordless fade to black is its most gratifying section. That the album ends, unexpectedly, with a jarring burst of noise, is evidence enough that I might be expecting the wrong things from Totale Nite, that Merchandise intend to unsettle at least as much as enchant; either way, it doesn’t seem unfair to expect something a little less sloppy or at least music more gratifyingly uncanny than this.
The closer I’ve gotten to this new batch of songs, the more I appreciate and enjoy them, but I still have yet to become so close that I change my mind about them. Totale Nite still feels to me like lateral growth, neither distinctly worse but certainly not better than what preceded it. In the middle of the album, Cox expresses his desire “just to be free from all you motherfuckers,” and I can’t help but think that he’s singing about fickle and nitpicky fans like me. I wish I could wrap my heart around any of these songs the way I did with “Become What You Are,” but I have tried valiantly to do so, and I have failed. Perhaps Merchandise will realize their potential next time around (or then again, perhaps not), but at the very least, they will still have the absence of hype working in their favor.