Philly is a great place to start a band. It’s the birthplace of post–hardcore acts like Circa Survive and Days Away, emo revival groups such as Modern Baseball and Balance and Composure, and even the folk rock weirdness of The Dead Milkmen and Mischief Brew. When it comes to the Philly punk scene, one band name comes to the lips more often than all the rest: The Menzingers. Formed by guitarists and co–vocalists Greg Barnett and Tom May in 2006, the band throws out enough casual references to Philadelphia landmarks to be lampooned for it by punk satire website The Hard Times. Hello Exile, released Oct. 4, is no less Philly than any other Menzingers album—but it's decidedly less punk.
Some bands remain stagnant throughout their career, while others grow up. Anti–Flag, for instance, no longer writes party songs like “Drink Drank Punk” or “Spaz’s House Destruction Party,” preferring to focus on critiques of government and modern society on American Spring and American Fall. The Menzingers seem to take that literally: While other albums were about growing up, Hello Exile is about what happens when the grown–ups get old.
After opening the album with the song “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” the Menzingers dive fully into sentimentality. “Last To Know” provides the requisite social commentary of any self–respecting punk band, “Anna” mourns a girlfriend that moved away, “High School Friend” describes hometown hellraising between two people who moved away themselves, “Portland” and “Strain Your Memory” describe another failed relationship, and “London Drugs” shows the normally hard–drinking punks refusing to forget their troubles by way of recreational drug use. The closing song, “Farewell Youth,” makes the theme clear for those who took 12 songs to catch on.
Through it all, while the music is pleasant to listen to, there is something decidedly un–punkish about it. Even on the tracks with angrier content, such as “Last To Know,” (“Promises were made on an altar in blood / Sacrificial children's voices echo on and on”), the band has no youthful righteous anger, only the resigned acceptance of tired adults. Yes, the world is dying and there are wrongs that need to be made right, but mustering up the energy to fight the man is more difficult than ever. Drinking and reminiscing is the path of least resistance.
The band started straying from its punk roots with their last album, 2017’s After the Party. While some of those tracks, like opener “Tellin’ Lies,” maintain that youthful anger, songs like “Midwestern States” and “Your Wild Years” took on a more wistful, nostalgic rock sound, and Hello Exile doubles down on that vaguely mournful sound.
It would be easier to compare Hello Exile not to other Menzingers releases like After the Party, but to the works of geographically similar band: the Gaslight Anthem, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Barnett and May’s mournful, melodic vocals are not too far off from those of Brian Fallon, lead singer of the Gaslight Anthem, while the crunchy, warm guitar tones and slow, classic rock riffs wouldn’t sound out of place on a record like The ’59 Sound or Handwritten. The Gaslight Anthem also, notably, includes as many Jersey references as Fallon can fit into a single record.
Hello Exile, like all Menzingers albums, never lets the listener forget the band’s Pennsylvania roots. Philly is first mentioned in second track “Anna” (“I have so much to tell ya / Please come back to Philadelphia”) and subsequent tracks reference Wayne County, Route 191, the Poconos, the Delaware River, Strawberry Mansion, and the Pennsylvania turnpike. “I Can’t Stop Drinking” deserves special recognition for rhyming “drunk” with “Passyunk,” a feat that somehow took the band 13 years to pull off.
That hometown spirit extended to the album’s promotion as well as the content: On the day that Hello Exile was released, Barnett and May performed an acoustic show at Creep Records, up in Northern Liberties. Each ticket included not just entrance into the performance and meet–and–greet, but also a peach–colored limited vinyl pressing of the record.
For a band that made its bones on the Philadelphia punk scene, to record a pure rock album in the Brian Fallon and Bruce Springsteen tradition might be seen as a betrayal. Maybe it would be if it weren’t so good. The sound of Hello Exile feels like a natural progression from the early punk days of A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology and Chamberlain Waits and through the slightly softer and more melodic On The Impossible Past and After the Party. Once, the Menzingers were hailed as part of the best punk scene in the world. Now, they might be one of its best rock bands.