To put the almost ungoogleable Florida band Merchandise’s evolution and eventual arrival at a major label into context, one has to listen to their previous recorded output. Their previous album Totale Nite is five songs long and four of those clock in at over six minutes each. They showed tiny glimpses of where they were going but I don’t think anyone could have imagined this. Each one of their albums has shown an insatiable appetite for re-invention and this one is no different by being so different.
Gone is the drum machine, to be replaced by a real live human drummer; gone is the rough around the edges mope-rock, replaced by an altogether more vibrant, vivid mope-rock. The guitars at times recall IRS-era R.E.M at their jangly best, none more so than on ‘Enemy’ which, when it gets to the chorus, leaves you forgiven for thinking Jimi Godwin of Doves had wrestled the mic from frontman Carson Cox’s hand. But as it races towards the end, there is a middle bit with a noisy harmonica break which is more akin to their previous iteration.
The band sound like a lot of different ’80s bands (at different times Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Tears for Fears) but they are just little sonic touchstones not wholesale rip-offs. Cox’s vocals have also grown and evolved; rich, toneful and anchoring everything the band do – none the more apparent on ‘True Monument’ and the closing ‘Exile And Go’, majestic in it’s quiet understatement. There are other things to admire here like the funky groove of ‘Telephone’ with a simple but effective chorus and a positively Smithsy guitar riff/intro.
‘Little Killer’ has a catchy chorus but in truth it’s the most straightforward and throwaway track on After The End and the beginning of the album’s slide, taking its foot of the gas with ‘Looking Glass Waltz’ – not in itself a bad tune but doesn’t really stand up to what came before. The title track ‘After The End’, at almost 7 minutes, is too long for it’s own good. They get it back for the aforementioned ‘Exile And Go’, a slow burner with some nice guitars.
After The End isn’t a masterpiece, just the beginning of a new book in the life of Merchandise. And it’s a book that you will be eager to keep reading. They set out to re-invent themselves as a pop band and have gone some way to achieving that, while still maintaining a tiny essence of what made them such an exciting prospect in the first place. The way they are going, it will be impossible to predict what the next album will sound like, but they would be ill-advised to completely abandon what made them grab the attention the first and second time around. This album will garner them a new audience, who may even hate what the band did before, but I for one like a little bit of strange in my coffee.