Merchandise knows a thing or two about staying in one place. Though it often seems the band has no love for their Tampa hometown (in an interview with Dazed & Confused, frontman Carson Cox called it a “cultural wasteland”), they’ve spent their entire lives in the Florida city. Drummer Elsner Niño said he couldn’t convince them to relocate. But while the band’s strip-mall surroundings and small home studio haven’t changed, with After The End, their sound has.
The band’s third LP (and its first for 4AD) had a lot to live up to, given the game-changing success of Merchandise’s sophomore effort, 2012’s Children Of Desire. But rather than live up to it, Merchandise attempts to look past it. The bare bones, lo-fi greasiness of Children Of Desire has been replaced by a clean pop sheen. The seven-minute scuzz fests have been subdued to four-minute ballads. But After The End is still very much a Merchandise album: the slow build in True Monument, the unchained guitar in Little Killers. Sure, it’s the first time Merchandise has recorded an album with actual drums (thanks to the addition of Niño), and multi-instrumentalist Chris Horn is newly a part of the lineup. But After The End is still rooted in punk and Merchandise’s self-possessed DIY ethic.
This band has always had clear influences from eras past, but while 2012’s Children Of Desire recalled Jesus & Mary Chain or even the Band (a Cox favorite), After The End brings to mind dark asylum (the Smiths) and blue collar troubadours (Bruce Springsteen). Unsurprisingly, this is also Merchandise’s most pop-directed release yet, due in no small part to production from Gareth Jones (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode). And in a year when basement balladeers like Future Islands are finally getting traction for breaking through the underground roof, it makes sense for Merchandise to follow suit.
Looking Glass Waltz benefits from the live drums, creating a stuttering backbone for Cox’s bruised baritone. Enemy is dreary but seductive, with Cox’s voice almost creaking along to the spazzy percussion. And Telephone stretches harmonies against a snaggle-tooth guitar solo and alien dialtone samples.
One thing you’ll see written a lot about this album is the question, “Is Merchandise still a punk band?” but I don’t think it’s a question that matters. After The End is a damn good pop album, and it’s not concerned with where it fits in the world. And like Tampa, there’s an element of desolation-porn to the album, an isolation from its past. After The End isn’t the conclusion of something, it’s Merchandise living past their own apocalypse.