Merchandise ‘After The End’ (4AD) 25th August 2014.
Moping around the darkened swamplands and back lots of a southern sunshine state in existential, switchblade, angst, Tampa Bay’s lost boys once again shift closer to a subtler, rounded and cerebral pop ascetic. Despite all the talk of their DIY punk and hardcore roots – living and recording together in communal bliss – Merchandise have always flirted with a Howard Deuth and John Hughes vision of 80s adolescence. On their latest transmission from the margins they effortlessly slip between the intellectual aloof alternative rock – the Athens, Georgia scene in particular – of that decade’s college radio stations, and the ray ban donned pop of more recent times as they peruse an imaginary teen doom film set.
Since their inaugural baptism with the mostly applauded 2012 album, Children Of Desire (depending who you listen to, their first album proper), the band have pulled a few surprises from their kit bag – the skulking panoramic moiety of ‘Begging For Your Life/In The City Light’, from the beginning of the year, sounded like Chet Baker teaming up with Gene Vincent at a Velvet Underground happening Boho -, making it difficult to either venerate or write them-off: prone to procrastination and sulky indulgence at times.
Their last hurrah, 2013’s Total Nite, marked the end of another cycle, as the group left their last label to sign with 4AD (home to Scott Walker, tUnE-yArDs and Deerhunter), expanding their ranks in the process and enlisting outside help from producer Gareth Jones. Presumably Jones was picked for his work with the lords of morose, Depeche Mode (moving to the iconic Hansa Berlin studio and recording the bands Bowie mirrored trilogy of Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward and Black Celebration), and for notable duties carried out on albums by Interpol, These new Puritans and, the lighter and disarming Grizzly Bear.
With a far more patient, effortless and breezy demeanor, those maladies remain less intensive, drawn-out from a mostly melodic envelope of multiple guitar tracks. A case in point is the rattlesnake tambourine accented and Gothic Talk Talk piano spanked title track, appearing as the penultimate, frayed emotional downer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Merchandise adopt – and the jury’s out on this one – a palm tree patterned short-sleeved wearing Mott The Hopple guise for the kooky ‘awaiting on a call’ love sick phaser-beamed ‘Telephone’. A most peculiar, almost old-fashioned vernacular roll back, that once again recalls some hazy 80s high school drama (more Rumble Fish than Ferris Bueller).
But the main pulse mainlines a sophisticated accentuated blend of The Smiths (languidly lost in a protestation merry-go-round on ‘Looking Glass Waltz’), the Psychedelic Furs (on the richly melodic, interplaying acoustic and electric guitar, pretty in pink, ‘Enemy’ and broody heart pranged ‘True Monuments’) and early REM. There’s even a quasi-bass line and twisted lick from Bowie’s Scary Monsters period on the group’s most dynamic and catchy standalone, ‘Little Killer’.
As pop becomes the default setting, even for many alternative bands, Merchandise lend it a certain introspective swoon and quality; they may lounge around in moody reflection but they know how to write a meandering but congruous melody.
Not quite as adventurous as their label mates, Deerhunter, or even Bradford Cox’s – though both frontmen share the same surname, their vocal delivery couldn’t be more different, the Merch’s Carson Cox curl-lipped with a subtle southern drawl, sounding like the Tampa Springsteen – solo Atlas Sound side project, the two bands have returned to a harmonic abstract form of rock’n’roll.
Regulated to a point, toned down and spaced evenly throughout, After The End demands repeated plays and attention, before it unveils its multilayers of nuanced and deftly touched craftsmanship. Far from a leap of faith for the ever evolving and experimental band, the move isn’t as drastic or bombastic as we’ve perhaps been led to believe; the hype and numerous interviews and band quotes harking towards a dramatic plunge into the unknown. Like many before them, that progression, both musically and ambitiously from DIY to, potentially, populism, without fatally compromising the spark that set you apart in the first place, has been on this occasion a successful one.