There’s something of a throwback feel to Merchandise‘s fourth album, but possibly not in the way their hardcore fans may be hoping for. For, when the four-piece started out, they were thrown together by the Florida punk scene, having previously played in a succession of noise and hardcore bands. And, while Merchandise may never have been truly punk, they were certainly noisy and intimidating.
That all changed with Children Of Desire, a brooding, gloomy record that recalled The Smiths had Fugazi and Joy Division been their influences when growing up. It was a terrific record, but one which divided their long-term fans – were Merchandise in danger of ‘going pop’? After The End is certainly not going to give Beyoncé or Justin Bieber sleepless nights, but it’s an album that recalls nothing so much as the slew of bands who appeared about a decade ago in the slipstream of Interpol: the much-maligned likes of Editors, The Departure and White Lies.
That may not be much of a surprise of course, as many of those aforementioned bands share the same reference points as Merchandise too, namely a love of mid-late ’80s alternative rock. There are plenty of surprises on After The End – not least the almost pastoral atmosphere of the instrumental opener Corridor – but the general mood recalls the glory days of The Cure or Talk Talk around the time of The Spirit Of Eden. Indeed, towards the end of Enemy, a guitar riff breaks out which you’d swear was Johnny Marr making one of his many guest appearances.
After The End’s best moments are usually its catchiest – the glorious Telephone has a menacing stomp, squealing guitar riffs and lead singer Carlton Cox sounding almost distraught as he tells a tale of “waiting on your call, by the telephone” but the song is so insistently catchy that it soon becomes addictive. Even better is the stand-out track Little Killer, sounding like Phoenix performing an Echo & The Bunnymen cover. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see tracks like these filling up the indie dancefloors of the nation.
Apart from these moments, there probably won’t be too much dancing done to Merchandise. Much of After The End sounds both foreboding and thoughtful – Life Outside The Mirror shimmers beautifully while the title track often threatens to become a bit too bleak, but just about pulls off its miserablism within the lengthy seven minutes running time. If there’s an issue, it’s probably with the album’s sequencing, with Looking Glass Waltz, the title track and Exile & Ego making for a very downbeat ending to the album.
For that air of all-pervading doom can prove oppressive after a while, with some songs struggling to find a memorable tune (especially compared to the bright sparkles of Telephone and Little Killer). Green Lady and Life Outside The Mirror both veer perilously close to sounding like a bit of a dirge, and it’s not helped by the fact that Cox’s vocals are buried so deep into the mix that it’s often difficult to hear exactly what he’s singing. While that’s not necessarily a problem – much of the good things about After The End are about the atmosphere it creates – it tends to contribute to the homogeneity that sometimes pervades through the record.
Merchandise are a band at a crossroads, and After The End reflects that – they’ve proved here that they’re very good at creating accessible indie-pop, but seem more comfortable with their more brooding side. As this is their first album for 4AD, it could well be the case that this is their ‘reset’ point, and we could be looking back at this record where Merchandise began the journey from cult concern to big game players.