If 2012's Children of Desire felt like a lost post-punk treasure discovered in an old record store, After the End evokes a recently unearthed '80s tour de force. Both are phenomenal efforts, yet they feel quite removed from each other, even though After the End is technically the followup full-length to Merchandise's wonderful debut LP. As frontman Carson Cox put it to NME, "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."
A lot has happened for the these former punk rockers from Tampa Bay since Children of Desire. With After the End, the band takes sizable steps away from their DIY punk scene roots—though, to be fair, the album was recorded the band's new house, not a studio. In order to realize this new iteration of themselves, the band pushes past the post-punk and jazz influences that colored 2013's intriguing Totale Nite, shortening their track lengths, tightening the hooks, and moving into an aural landscape bordering the work of Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, and the Church. While opener "Corridor" offers a bit of mystery regarding what is to come (even toying a bit with Totale Nite's sonic palate), there is no mistaking the band's new direction and drive as soon as "Enemy" sparks to life with the Johnny Marr-esque swagger of guitars complimenting the Echo & the Bunnymen-like feel of the composition. A lot of popular '80s bands have been bandied about in reviews of After the End, everyone from the Smiths to Simple Minds, yet these influences and touchstones do little to erode the strength of Merchandise's talents, songwriting, or originality. Sonically, a song like "Enemy" is in a very different world than their previous recordings, but you can still tell this is the work of the same boys who wrote "In Nightmare Room" and "Time."
With After the End's exploration of their '80s influence, there will be listeners who are hoping for an album full of "Bring on the Dancing Horses" and "Under the Milky Ways"—or in this case, "Little Killers"—and will be disappointed. And like many a strong '80s new wave record, there's a strange track like "Telephone" that you are honestly not entirely sure how you feel about—you don't hate it, but there's something that doesn't entirely work for you either. (Maybe it'll keep growing on us, we'll have to see.) But if this albums lands with you, it lands hard, faults and all. After the End isn't about perfection, but the beauty in striving for it, and, boy, do Merchandise ever come close with compositions like the title track and the beautiful closer, "Exile and Ego," a song that Morrissey may well wish had been written for the latter half of his Vauxhall & I.
After the End is going to be a cherished companion of mine as we slip out of late summer into early autumn, when the evening air's subtle chill hints at the coming winter—too far away to worry about just yet, but still a harbinger of shorter days, of the death of another year. That seems to be what After the End is about, after all, that liminal space between endings and beginnings, with the two blending almost seamlessly for a moment to become something else. Perhaps this explains how songs like the triumphant "Enemy" and raucous "Little Killer" fit so well on an album that closes with three far more sober and sombre compositions, the gorgeous "Looking Glass Waltz" ushering in the final sepulchral moments discussed above. And yet the album doesn't end on a funeral tone, but a triumphant one—or as Cox put it, After the End is both an epilogue and a celebration of a new life.
If this is the first offering from the reimagined Merchandise, I can't wait to see what they still have in store for us.