Ever since Merchandise earned national recognition in 2012 with their sophomore effort, Children of Desire, they’ve been billed as a punk band gone pop. Sure, Desire had moments of pure noise that recalled their Florida DIY roots, but on the whole, these were pop songs that unfurled over the course of seven to 10 minutes. Their 2013 EP, Totale Nite, continued this trend, but mixed it with swirls of psychedelia, krautrock, and jazzy freak-outs. Merchandise’s music never really verged on straight-up punk, but they had enough edge to keep them grounded through their humble, feedback-laden beginning.
Though Merchandise has been trending towards pop euphoria since their formation, their third full-length, After the End, trades their aggressive roots for moody ‘80s-inspired pop rock once and for all, evoking acts like the Cure, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and Echo & the Bunnymen. The retro pedigree comes in part from producer Gareth Jones, who’s helmed records from Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, along with newer projects like Grizzly Bear. His ear for bombastic, stadium-filling sonics dresses the band’s music in a gauzy, ambitious sheen. It’s hard to tell that these songs were recorded in the band’s house in Tampa; each number is pristine and immaculately constructed. Gone are the drum machines and long bouts of feedback. They’ve been replaced by a careful pop core and a resonating live drum sound courtesy of Elsner Niño. Rarely is After the End messy or abrasive — a surprising feat for a band named after a Fugazi song.
In the hands of a lesser band, the shift from rough-edged to unabashedly gaudy pop rock would neuter the music, erasing charming imperfections in favor of a distant sleekness. While the ramshackle lo-fi flourishes that made Merchandise’s early songs compelling are gone, their unreserved romanticism and raw emotion find a perfect vessel in these ’80s-inspired goth rock arrangements. From the crystalline opening chords of highlight “Enemy”, it’s clear that After the End is a markedly different Merchandise record. The song blissfully bounces along with a combination of new wave synths, a lively bass line, and a delay pedal-induced guitar solo. Where Children of Desire highlight “Become What You Are” was a remarkable song (arguably one of the band’s best), it spanned over 10 minutes with spiraling, unhinged noise. Most of After the End is just as melodically stunning, but it’s also condensed and contained. Only the title track clocks in over six minutes, and even then it’s for subtle atmosphere-building rather than boisterous squalls.
With all their sincerity, these songs are better without the lo-fi production and instrumental jams. Frontman Carson Cox’s less morbid take on Morrissey’s wistful and velvety croon is sturdier and more romantic, especially on the slower tracks like the swooning “Life Outside the Mirror”, where the subtle instrumentation allows his baritone to carry the song. Even on jauntier numbers like “Green Lady”, another standout single that kicks off with woodblock percussion and a wall of arena-filling synths and guitars, Cox’s voice shines. He sings, “I’m through with begging for approval/ Now I’m asking to be free.” Cox’s creative partner David Vassalotti is also a force on this record, occasionally whipping out the 12-string guitar for earworm riffs on songs like “Little Killer”. Throughout, he channels the space rock theatrics of U2’s The Edge, the distinctive tone of the Cure, and the sustained, melodic fuzz of Robert Fripp.
Part of the success of After the End lies in its seamless and smart sequencing. The album was carefully planned to be a wholly satisfying product with two deliberate sides. Spanning 10 tracks, it’s wonderfully spaced, anchoring peppy pop songs “Green Lady” and “Little Killer” with dreamy lullabies like “Life Outside the Mirror” and “Looking Glass Waltz”. Written about staying by the telephone and “waiting on your call,” “Telephone” is a song with a topic as old as most pop music. On closer “Exile and Ego”, over an arrangement that sounds like a slowed-down version of “Here Comes the Sun”, Cox wonders if he’s seeing “the Angel of Death coming for a kiss.” The band tackle some longstanding lyrical traditions, from satisfying kiss-offs to pondering mortality, all with melancholic exuberance.
Before the album was ever officially announced, Cox explained in an interview, “The record’s called After the End. It’s weird because the chapter has already been closed. This is the epilogue. This is the beginning of a new life. Totale Nite was the end of the book. This is a whole new book.” Grandiose narrative aside, he’s right. After the End is an emphatic redefinition of Merchandise, one that finds them making a case for becoming as big as the bands they so clearly admire. This is only the beginning.
Essential Tracks: “Enemy”, “Green Lady”, and “Looking Glass Waltz”