Of course I feel underwhelmed by “Open The Door,” the opening track off of The Men’s New Moon. A piano and mandolin ballad slab of American country could only underwhelm the post-Open Your Heart listener. But much like the occasional piece of Americana gold, I was totally bored with it until it was stuck in my head a week later.
The lyrics are bad. So? How bad are they compared to other upstate New York country albums, like, say, John and Beverly Martin’s Stormbringer!? Compare their song “Tomorrow Time” next to “Open The Door”: “Morning’s here, sounds so clear/ Birds are singing, music’s ringing,” “Tomorrow Time” says. Then, “When I hear the guitars playing/ The lone tambourine ringing” says “Open The Door.” Given the language that The Men have decided to work with on New Moon, it makes perfect sense, but like the simplistic things, it’s more or less disarming, as we are beings who desire to see ourselves as the utmost intelligent. “Open The Door” doesn’t insult one’s intelligence, but it does ask for the ear of the record-collecting reference librarian to come down to a more lowbrow affair. In an age when Americana has been effectively middle-brow’d and polished into Mumford & Sons, NPR-approved Pro Tools gloss, it’s easy to become a skeptic. New Moon, most likely unintentionally, refuses that: The Men aren’t concerned with either being called an Americana-retro band or Americana as a generality. They seem to understand their sources well enough, but also understand that rock ‘n’ roll favors immediacy and imperfection.
And for the punk authoritarian who sees this kind of act as what bands do when they want to court a more mainstream crowd, they can quit worrying. The fidelity sinking of New Moon (yes, it’s scrappier than both Leave Home and Open Your Heart, probably on par quality-wise with Immaculada) will be plenty alienating enough to the ear that has been caressed by country being a “soft” affair. If we’ve been promised “four-part harmonies,” then try four dudes kind of singing at the same time. If we’ve been promised “pop concision,” then try these acoustic guitars that are just as loud, if not louder, than the electric ones. The mix on the louder songs is oftentimes a total mess: The Men give us everything they’ve given so far, but not in the way that we want it. The sequencing squashes any momentum that gets built (which someone has already shown frustration over), and it’s these qualities of refusal that leave me simultaneously put-off and excited by New Moon. I totally could’ve enjoyed an Open Your Leave Home II: Die Harder; it would’ve been an easier sound for both my aural and critical foundations. That didn’t happen, but I’ll take a willingness to fail (“But I’ve got a rock there now and I’m on a roll,” earnest but totally weak) for some of the album’s high points (“I’m not rich but you know I coulda been/ Real life tore apart my soft skin,” snotty, concise). It might not be “consistent,” but consistency is often the end to which experimenting for experimenting’s sake is created, and that’s not where New Moon is. The Men have simply absorbed another musical language and are trying to speak through it and the other languages they’ve spoken through on previous albums, trading Spacemen 3 or The Buzzcocks for Dusty Springfield (“Freaky”). Some don’t work (“Saw Her Face,” parts of “Half Angel Half Light”), some do really well (“The Brass,” “Electric”). They haven’t totally ditched their old ideas: “The Seeds” has the same end chorus/bridge/vocal infliction and riff as Leave Home’s “Candy.” Language is three-quarters finite, one-quarter dark matter, the haunting ever-present obvious unknown that becomes an obsession.
If there’s one big complaint I have, it’s that something about how much heavier The Men have relied previously on their instrumentals allowed them to make really great statements towards large themes. They’ve worked very well in containing large ideas in simple repetitions (the confrontational, single lyric past songs “If You Leave…,” or “Please Don’t Go Away,”); here they seem to be grappling with approaching from a few different angles, leaving less for the repetitions and instrumentals to do, the “Sleepwalker”-esque “High and Lonesome” being less impactful in comparison. But to this, they’ve even developed a response: “If less is more/ Then what’s in store?” Still, I found myself quite impressed with how well they could appropriate, recontextualize, and turn large themes into their own without having to say very much, the way poet John Ashbery said, “The ‘art’ part — knowing what important details to leave out.” But in some ways, they’ve been taking an adventure into areas where the boundary of comfort can be pushed. I fucking hate mandolins; thanks for putting one on a totally catchy song that I’ve been humming all day. “I Saw Her Face” is totally visceral, but I have to deal with the words “special place.”
So maybe it’s not sequenced well, but this isn’t “Inside the Actors Studio, Rock Edition.” Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. It would fit the grand theme of reckless abandon (“Oh, you liked that mood? GONE.”). But I’m not leaving myself to decide what an album should be over what it is. Expectations are everything and nothing, and when I came into New Moon expecting something, I probably should have known better.