Who are The Men, besides ready made material for an Abbott and Costello routine? (‘Have you heard of The Men?’ ‘The who?’ ‘No, they’re something else entirely.’) They’re a band of four, all of them, in fact, men — that much is undeniable. What’s less clear is where these men belong in the million-piece jigsaw puzzle of today’s pop-music scene, or whether they fit in at all. A band from Brooklyn without that borough’s hard-on for ornamentation and innovation, a band with dozens of influences but few close cousins, a band that often sounds like 1973 or 1983 or 1993 but rarely like 2013: The Men are a band the universe has cosmically, comically misfiled.
Where they truly belong is beside the seminal alternative bands that hatched from 1980s American suburbs: Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., The Replacements. Like them, The Men began as plausible hardcore practitioners, grew unsatisfied, and evolved into something softer, sweeter, and stranger. And as with those bands, the ceaseless marvel of The Men is their capacity for reinvention: reinvention of sound, as they retune their guitars for everything from sensitive songwriting to senseless noisemaking; of genre, as they incorporate influences as diverse as doo-wop, black metal, and surf rock into the basic punk recipe; and of affect, as they shuttle between the adolescent extremes of punk’s emotional range (from unsustainable elation to unjustifiable beleagueredness, from a wish for self-obliteration to an equally deadened apathy). What separates The Men from their predecessors is, as their spare name suggests, a commitment to obscurity. Renouncing rock-star-sized personalities, even stable lyrical presences, The Men are happiest submerged beneath booming guitars. Not that The Men don’t have things to say — but when they do, they let their guitars do the talking.
For most, The Men’s first impression was their second full-length, Leave Home. It’s a bipolar introduction, one that suckers you in only to push you away. Opening track ‘If You Leave . . . ’ is one of The Men’s trademarks, the almost-instrumental: the vocal is repressed to a single mantra-like lyric (here, a response to the title’s hypothetical): ‘I would die’, while a fluctuating instrumental backdrop inflects the lyric with conflicting tones: indifference, remorselessness, masochistic glee. Despite The Men’s many efforts to disquiet us — the lyrics portending self-destruction, the album ordering leave, the cacophonous guitars warning you are not welcome here — Leave Home is an immediately commanding listen. It’s a compilation of some of most ear-grabbing guitar tones of the past few years: the gargling low end of ‘LADOCH’, the eardrum-numbing high end of ‘Shitting with the Shaw’, the bulldozing mid-range of ‘Bataille’. And with these tones The Men engineer song after song modelled on perpetual-motion machines, songs whose unflagging momentum can barely be believed, songs that seemingly never stop moving, even when the album’s over.
Leave Home’s antisocial rock is not for everyone — perhaps not evenThe Men themselves, who about-faced on their third album, Open Your Heart. Unlike Leave Home’s experiments in noise and energy, every song on Open Your Heart channels at least one established genre: rootless country rock (‘Candy’), blues-note-soaked psychedelia (‘Presence’), sprawling Daydream Nation–stylejams (‘Oscillation’), note-perfect imitations of seventies arena rock, covers to classics that don’t actually exist (‘Turn It Around’). But The Men are not simply an immaculate cover band with catholic taste: their generic versatility is always a means of depicting emotional realism, in all its grain and depth. Nowhere is this clearer than on ‘Please Don’t Go Away’, The Men’s most affecting almost-instrumental. Taken alone, the song’s single lyric (the lacklustre title, stammered over a seesawing two-note melody) wouldn’t convince anyone — but placed in a pandemonium of shoegaze guitar squalls, doo-wop squeals, and rapid-fire snare-drum fills, it transforms into an urgent appeal for reconciliation. Forgoing any clarifying context — there’s nothing here approximating a story, a scene, or even a verse-and-chorus skeleton — The Men give us three minutes of choked-up-ness, of emotions overbrimming and words not sufficing. 2012 was a year of great lyrics, loopy extended metaphors, meme-ready rap lines — but few bands understood the eloquence of inarticulateness quite as well as The Men.
If new single ‘Electric’ is any indication, we’ll be meeting yet another incarnation of The Men on their fourth album, New Moon, out March 4th. An earwormy burst of proto-punk from a band whose aim was once to alienate and bewilder, ‘Electric’ is simultaneously a radical step forward for the band and their most accessible offering yet. More than ever, The Men’s influences are right on the surface: the verse’s three-chord vamp is pure Modern Lovers, while the sneering references to neutron bombs and jokers and thieves come straight from The Stooges’ apocalyptic rock. So where can we hear The Men in all this? Just wait for the chorus: the drummer attacking his kit as if he had something against it, the guitars ditching the horizontal chug of the verse and leaping upward in an ascendant pentatonic riff, the singer shutting up because there’s a certain species of joy only overdriven guitars can express. Who are The Men? They’re your favourite part of the song.