The Men continue to baffle and surprise – this time by not surprising at all
“And I’m waiting for this sign to fade/and I hate being young”
For the relatively short time The Men have been around they’ve sounded like a band kicking the curb with a brand new pair of trainers, wanting to scuff away the newness and make them look lived in. Tomorrow’s Hits is their fifth album in five years – they’re a band who seem in an awful hurry to have a past. They did have 15 minutes or so as something of a buzz band around the time of Leave Home, which maybe calcified their desire for relentless momentum and genre wanderlust. Which, if true, you can hardly blame them for. But on the one hand this headlong rush into nostalgia is a something of a self-sabotaging habit – so far theirs has been been a wilfully chequered career, filled with patchy albums and wild genre shifts that can frustrate as much as they excite. You suspect since they came to wider attention with the aforementioned Leave Home they’ve lost as many fans as they’ve gained. Which was probably the point. But then on the other hand their refusal to sit still is what makes The Men so compelling, at least to a certain type of listener – hearing them trying on genres like an excitable teenager cut loose in a clothing store is an experience tailor made for critics and music geeks. Their back catalogue thus far demands to be hacked up and rearranged into a best of playlist, trying to make their wild swings between Loop-esque psych bangers, sludgey hardcore, breezy up-tempo indie rock and country tinged classic rock have some kind of natural flow. They have the capacity surprise without seeming like they’re trying too hard to surprise, a quality which feels pretty rare in these cynical times.
However the big surprise on Tomorrow’s Hits is that for once they’ve not really moved on at all. There’s a similar mix of that trad-rock-played-straight stuff (The Men and the E Street Band is the joke that has been doing the rounds) and driving, fuzzed up indie rock that made up last year’s New Moon. The primary difference is that the balance has shifted towards the former rather than the latter. Which is something of a shame – when they play at a pace like they do on Different Days (where that lyric up top is found) their attempts at actively fleeing their own youth sound exciting. Thrilling even. At full tilt they exist in that sort of pre-emptive nostalgia zone that Japandroids have made their stock in trade. Only Japandroids play with their fist in the air and a defiant grin on their faces, sounding weary and excited at the same time, like a sweat drenched mosh pit still baying for another encore. Whereas The Men play it with slumped shoulders and a dismissive sneer – yet somehow still sound energetic and vital – which is no mean feat.
The trouble is that the rest of the time they sound like old men playing songs that would fit neatly on some AM radio station at pretty much any time over the past half a century, slipped in between Gram Parsons and Tom Petty. It’s not necessarily a bad sound when done right – Slow Me Down in particular stomps away with a looseness and a swagger that suits it quite well. But when done lazily – like on album opener (and most flagrant abuser of the phrase ‘it’s true’ I’ve ever heard) Dark Waltz, with its casual borrowed lyricism (‘he carried a gun – it’s true- a little mean sonuvabitch too!’ Hey guys, Johnny Cash called – and I was not prepared to deal with phone calls from the undead this morning) – it comes over as half-baked pastiche. It’s enough to make a man wonder why he’s been following these dudes around so much – if the thing they’ve been rushing towards all this time is just heritage rock from an era they/we only know through the filter of pop culture and second hand tales from eagerly self-mythologising baby boomers…well that’s a bit of a let-down. Does the world really need another wooden Woodstock set? However well you paint that up if you give it a push it still falls over.
And annoyingly that sepia tinged classic sound has even seeped into the tracks that sound a bit like The Men of old (or at least old in their own hyper speed timeframe) – Different Days is driven by a melody utilising an organ part bewilderingly reminiscent of Walk of Life. If even on your best tracks you’re making people remember Dire Straits then you’re in trouble. Further on album highlight Pearly Gates sounds like a Jools Holland New Year’s hootenanny being kicked down a flight of stairs. And Another Night borrows the sax part from Everybody Needs Somebody – I’m not sure being roots rock’s equivalent of The Blues Brothers is what anybody wants to be. The frustrating part is that these are all good songs that I keep coming back to – Different Days in particular is probably my favourite song of 2014 so far, even despite the fact it makes me think about middle aged men in sweatbands and double denim when I’m trying to have fun. You can’t tell whether in choosing such out-of-style reference points (and to not just nod towards them but steal them wholesale) The Men are fucking with us or just don’t give a fuck.
But then that uncertainty is their calling card, along with an incredible work rate and an insistence on throwing things away as soon as they’re done with them. This record has already been erased from memory as far as The Men are concerned – their live set is like an etch-a-sketch, as soon as the songs are down on tape they pick it up, shake it and move on. They’re playing new songs which will be on a new album before we know it – probably before the end of the year. You get the feeling they’re content to just keep rushing on leaving a gems amidst the throwaway stuff and damn everything else. By the time we’ve decided where The Men are at they’re somewhere else. However Tomorrow’s Hits marks the first time they’ve popped up in pretty much the same place – if you ignore the between albums release, the appropriately called Campfire Songs (and you probably should). It seems alarmingly like The Men are getting comfortable in this zone. Whilst Tomorrow’s Hits has a few good highs and few real genuine lows it would be a real shame if their previously relentless energy finally ran aground in such boring territory.