Following up on a masterpiece album is a challenge every great band faces at some point. Expectations increase, money is more of a factor because the fanbase has grown, and all these little anxieties settle in the back of the songwriter’s head as he or she tries to find inspiration. Such are the circumstances surrounding The Menzingers’ Rented World — the followup to 2012’s On the Impossible Past, which was a minor revelation in the pop punk world. Literary, honest, and catchy, it remains some of the best music of its genre this side of Jawbreaker.
But the shadow of past successes looms large, too large in the case of Rented World. After the opening anthem, “I Don’t Wanna Be an Asshole Anymore”, a fiery tune with machine gun snare buildups and a “whoa-ooh-ooh” chorus, the Philadelphia-via-Scranton quartet settle into a mid-tempo daze that never recedes, instigated by flat production and incredibly safe songwriting.
The Menzingers rarely stray from their arsenal of pop punk tropes: power chords, major key riffs, shout-along refrains, and the juxtaposition of clean vocals and emo howls. These guys are skilled at incorporating these elements into their songwriting, and that’s especially apparent on heavy tracks like “In Remission” and “Where Your Heartache Exists”. Their unwavering approach, however, limits the tonalities in the songs, making Rented World repetitious and tiring.
Frontman Greg Barnett’s lyrics remain The Menzingers’ staple, as he touts many a strong turn of phrase and can finesse syllables around tight melodies. The songs read like the diaries of a heartbreaker who doesn’t want to be a heartbreaker anymore, like when he vows solitude with coy jest on highlight “Rodent”, or when he dwells on a tarnished relationship on “Nothing Feels Good Anymore”. Though these are probably unrelated love songs, listening to the album like it’s a collection of episodes from the same relationship adds a loose continuity that gives the flatter songs (“Bad Songs”, “Hearts Unknown”) some narrative urgency.
Rented World is just so polished and clean — aesthetics that don’t suit The Menzingers’ brand of punk. Nothing unpredictable happens, and only Barnett’s lyrics stick around after the record stops spinning, which comes as a huge disappointment after the band’s past two albums offered catchy hook after memorable riff after poignant phrase. That energy and excitement is severely lacking here, replaced by by-the-numbers pop punk that is uncharacteristically complacent.
Essential Tracks: “I Don’t Want to Be an Asshole Anymore”, “Rodent”