A strange thing happens three tracks into The Men‘s third album, Open Your Heart. All the blistering, crusty distortion that made the eight songs on their Sacred Bones debut Leave Home so beastly, and which came to characterize the band’s reckless and raucous modus operandi, disappears for a few minutes. In its place is a shimmering tremolo guitar riff, sweetened and polished up by some oddly pretty slide riffs. And to make matters all the more confusing, this gentler, more graceful piece of instrumental wonder is titled “Country Song.” If The Men didn’t do such a damn good job with it, I’d think they might have been fucking with us.
“Country Song” is in the minority of songs on Open Your Heart that reveal a kinder, gentler side to the band, but the fact that there are any quieter songs, let alone ones played with acoustic guitars (there’s some of that, too), is a sign that The Men have undergone an evolution of sorts in the 10 months since their last release. In a recent interview, the band even admitted as much, commenting, “basically, it’s a different band now.” That may be true, but only to an extent. There’s a lot of melody on Open Your Heart, and for that matter, more variation in shades and textures, but an instinct toward the abrasive and the destructive still seems to compel them toward rock ‘n’ roll screaming matches like “Animal.”
Open Your Heart finds The Men in a state of maturity, without having committed to growing up any more than they have to. Where Leave Home was a jaw-dropping achievement in noise rock, this time the band is more heavily focused on just the “rock” part, playing with as much volume and intensity as before, but imbuing their visceral punk rock power with classic rock riffs, hooks fit for drunken sing-alongs, and every so often, a little bit of restraint. First track “Turn It Around” should have a familiar feel to anyone who geeked out on their previous LP, but catchier, with more rip-roaring classic rock guitar harmonization, and a chorus breakdown that sounds like Foo Fighters’ “This is a Call” more than anything. And “Please Don’t Go Away,” as noisy and heavy as it is, has the hazy melancholy of My Bloody Valentine, just played more aggressively.
In the album’s second half, The Men hit a sweet spot that not only marks a truly unstoppable sequence of five tracks, but also their most diverse and multi-hued to date. The title track kicks off side two by injecting Buzzcocks style punk-pop with ‘roid rage, to fantastic result, standing on its own as a sneering riposte to all the dorks who keep whining about the death of rock ‘n’ roll. “Candy” is the actual country song on the album, featuring some strummy acoustic guitar and lap steel, and vocals that sound more Paul Westerberg than Merle Haggard, but spill their share of tears and beers all the same. Not that they aren’t back to wrecking the miserable joint on “Cube.” But the climactic pair of tracks that follow seem to better combine the group’s newfound commitment to nuance and well-established destructiveness better than the eight that precede them. Slowly building seven-minute epic “Presence” pounds and trudges with heady repetition toward a simple but glorious height, and maintaining that soaring peak throughout the shoegazer-tinged closer “Ex-Dreams.”
The Men are a different band on Open Your Heart, certainly, but in the same way that every band is a different band when they take on a new challenge and take the steps toward growth, adaptation and metamorphosis. They haven’t abandoned their core principles, nor have they even really changed their sound in such a way that old fans won’t recognize them or enjoy these various forays into subtlety or attempts to expand their range. One thing seems perfectly clear on Open Your Heart: The Men seem unlikely to ever not rock. How they choose to do so, however, remains an unpredictable and exciting journey to follow.
Stream: The Men – “Open Your Heart”