The Men Drift

[Sacred Bones; 2018]

Styles: underground folklore, garage rock historiography
Others: SST Records, college rock

It’s easy to overlook the beauty of anonymity in craft. At least since the Renaissance, Western societies have considered authorship and originality as essential to any noteworthy creative work. The continuity of a tradition through skillful interpretation was thus dismissed as a minor modality of creation, derided as mere artisanship, as “folk art.” The troubadour, a performer working on variations of styles and themes so long established that the notion of authorship became meaningless, was trusted with mastering said forms so that their preservation would be ensured and a record of the experiences of a community and its times kept. To repurpose such a role for American garage rock and its many intersections is not an objective one should put past a band that chose to name itself using the transparently generic The Men.

A decade into a career where each year has seen the band shift in sound, Drift unsurprisingly finds The Men breaking from the stylistic touchstones of their preceding works. Yet the NYC four-piece’s seventh album is the first where such mutability occurs both at the micro and macro levels — that is, song to song but also with respect to what we’ve known the band to sound like. But each change can now be traced to a previous incarnation of The Men, providing a context that was not there the first time they went from post-punk raucousness to scrappy acoustic guitars to channeling the Stones. Indeed, the framing of such changes under DIY aesthetics illuminates the album as something like a compendium of garage rock in America, resignifying The Men’s apparently fickle trajectory as a path toward compiling a repertoire of underground folklore.

Taking 1984 as their year zero, The Men champion a tradition as solid, codified, and longevous as the one identifiable in Americana-infused retro-rock. Employing garage rock as a vernacular, The Men propose in their praxis a parallel history to the one traceable in the staples of the average bar band’s repertoire — The Doors, CCR, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, etc. — with the The Feelies, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Pussy Galore, The Replacements, and R.E.M. outlining the syntax and vocabulary for such a lore. The possibilities of that foundation, an underground-bred sonic ethos where expression overrides everything, are ably materialized in Drift, itself a mixture between a stylebook and a freewheeling historical account; think of a PBS-style adaptation of Our Band Could Be Your Life where the music rights have not been cleared and nameless chums mimic the songs inches away from a lawsuit.

Through that prism, Drift’s nine songs acquire a new coherence: the distorted bass line and feral tension of opener “Maybe I’m Crazy” complementing the Beefheartian undertones of “Secret Light,” the fingerpicked atmospherics of “Come to Me” bridging the Paisley Underground throwback “Rose On Top of The World,” and the Spacemen 3-like dirge “Final Prayer,” etc. Taking an allographic trip through American DIY stylistic mainstays, The Men reverse-engineer the genetic code of most underground bands this side of post-punk, positioning themselves beyond the realm of imitation and into what could be considered the safeguarding of a legacy. It’s somewhat of a pity that The Men’s most conceptually rounded album lacks the songcraft of their previous work, with none of its tracks coming close to past gems like “Animal,” “The Brass” or “Bataille.”

Then again, the role of standard-bearers for an underground folklore might be something The Men already hinted at when they took an “analogue sample” of Spacemen 3 on their breakthrough album Leave Home (2011) or when they decided to abandon their noise rock roots for a version of the SST records aesthetic. Crediting 10 years of underground militancy, the Brooklyn act is no longer worried of being accused of sounding too much like their influences or of having their constant transformations be characterized as anything but deliberate artistic choices. The Men have earned their place amidst the lineage they celebrate in their music, even if only by virtue of stewardship. There is genuine freedom in that, and the NYC four-piece seems acutely aware of it.

In the arc of the band’s career, Drift is a step up from Devil’s Music (2016), which attempted to recreate Leave Home’s career-making abrasion with little of its viscerality. On the other hand, with nearly every song on the album performed in a different style, Drift lacks the cohesion of The Men’s less acclaimed albums. Yet it feels wrong to characterize this album on such terms. An equivalently meandering nature is already present in The Stooges’ debut album, as close to an Ur-text for American underground music one is to find. Identity and originality no longer seem to concern The Men, nor establishing a semblance of narrative clarity in their trajectory. And why should it? There are few forms more aesthetically durable than the vessel. Drift’s cover, with a beige screen containing a shifting fluid, confirms the band’s belief in flexibility. Through the past decade, The Men have charted an expansive canvas and mastered a potent language, both sufficient to sustain many albums, if not careers. The aesthetic coordinates The Men have chosen to represent do not constrain their creative possibilities nor submit them to orthodoxy. On the contrary, the unpredictability of The Men’s next move attests to the potential of the American underground folklore repertoire, reasserting the band’s fluctuating essence and the inexhaustible richness that garage rock has to provide.

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