opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS
There’s a point just over 20 seconds into the Cure’s “Plainsong,” the opening track of their career peak Disintegration, in which an orchestra-sized synth line suddenly unfurls, swathed by some of the most luxuriantly rounded bass tones ever heard on record. It could be the sound of night reversing into day, a monochrome world turning to color, or maybe the entire earth being tilted off its axis like an upturned snow globe. It also permanently announced the death of any trace of the band’s minimalist beginnings. At it’s very best, After the End, the fourth album from Tampa’s Merchandise, is able to produce some similarly glittering epiphanies. These instances don’t come as often here as they do in the landmark works of the Cure and their peers, but After the End’s greatest strength might just be that its best moments tend to sound like serendipity—not science.
The record is spiritually connected to the likes “Under the Milky Way” and Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain, monuments from an age when alternative rock was an art form, not the near-obsolete term it is today. Though its sensibility emanates from a time when outsized ambition and emotion weren’t automatically viewed with suspicion, the album’s sound is free of retro grain, and represents a clean break with the murkier textures of earlier Merchandise releases like Total Nite and Children of Desire. The atmosphere isn’t just widescreen-immersive, it’s downright 3-D, and as aquatic as anything since Merriweather Post Pavilion. Working with noted college rock producer Gareth Jones, Merchandise has fashioned an almost tangible sound world from which their perspective-shifting revelations spring organically.
You can hear it in the harmonium melody that trickles into “Looking Glass Waltz,” seemingly from another song altogether, as if played by a church organist who’d wafted into the studio via a flood. Or, in “Life Outside the Mirror,” as a few gently plucked notes are given the time and space to gradually coalesce into a gorgeously offhand guitar solo with delicate classical shadings. Similarly, the good-times riffs of “Little Killer” just seem to indecently stumble into heretofore-undiscovered middle ground between Interpol and the Stones. The stunning “Green Lady,” however, is a 4-and-a-half-minute succession of such moments, and it’s like several of Merchandise’s prior epic-length tracks being folded into one baroque arrangement. Its intoxicatingly florid ocean spray of synths has more in common with the sensations of a summer cloudburst than any touchstone album of a past era.
Aside from the production, the croon and bellow of frontman Carson Cox—who, at this point, has probably been compared to every vocalist who graced the Pretty Pink soundtrack—remains the closest thing there is to a unifying presence. Make no mistake: After the End is a dizzyingly uneven listen. Stargazing-suited closer “Exile and Ego” is a minor beauty that threatens to expand into something other than nebulousness, but never does. Meanwhile, the chorus of “Telephone” is absolutely bubblegum-sticky, but not quite big enough to justify the stopgap nature of the verses (from the heart or not, “Baby I’m your man and you’re my girl/But I’m stuck here on the wrong side of the world” flirts with the eye-roll-inducing side of arena-size that Cox is generally savvy enough to avoid). And the title track, which stretches out near the 7-minute mark, never amounts to more than a would-be power ballad heedlessly in search of that extra flourish that might make it truly lighter-worthy. But if Merchandise sometimes fails to reach the high plain they’re after, hearing them struggle toward grandeur again and again is never less than exhilarating.
After the End is just too immense to be stuffed under the indie canopy. Its sheer magnitude feels genuinely risky, especially coming from a band still regularly cited for its hardcore punk roots. There’s a possibility that the album will be too eccentric to take them to bigger stages, yet prove too streamlined for fans of prior releases. Then again, this record was hardly crafted with contemporary notions of tastefulness in mind. While Merchandise hasn’t exactly figured out how to inflate their songwriting to match the scale of the giants who’ve preceded them, After the End still glows too vividly to be obscured by anyone else’s shadow. B