Sometimes true bravery is being willing to admit the things that make you cringe. The pain of knowing and understanding yourself can be a messy business, but there is catharsis in self-expression even when it reflects badly on you. Other times, bravery is the awareness and admittance that life is not completely perceivable. By acknowledging the limited capacity and inherent contradictions of your perception, it’s possible to find meaning in the weight of mystery instead of the lightness of clarity. As an artistic method, bravery means confident delivery and a strong voice, even when it’s marred by mistakes or shrouded in confusion.
On Rented World, The Menzingers are nothing if not assured. Whereas past releases have found lyricists Greg Barnett and Tom May content to simply drift through the texture of their lives at times, Rented World is stacked with strong statements and resolve – even if most of it is largely self-deprecating. It’s an album born from the moments of intense awareness that come with hangovers, heartache and confusion. Lyrically its parts forgo a narrative whole for the sake of creating an aura of adamant assertion.
Thematic elements aside for a moment, the poetic sheen of the band’s songwriting continues to be their hook. The lead single “In Remission” is as close to vintage Menzingers as you can get, with its rendition of turning in an old lottery ticket and its fantastically blunt observation “maybe the future’s just a little bit weird” set against a simple yet catchy riff and background harmonies. Barnett takes the lead on the majority of the songs, and though we might not know exactly what he is talking about when he says “I took the weight of it all / I bought a drink / and then we drove back drunk through the busy city streets,” it’s impossible not to gravitate towards the artfully pinpoint experiences that he relays. On “In Remission” and throughout Rented World, he and May avoid letting their perspective keep them from conveying human experiences. By now the band are wildly talented at producing tracks that feel familiar, yet fresh. The result is a thoroughly relatable album that is built from an array of esoteric situations. By drawing and redrawing the scenes, the two lyricists create global stories from feelings that could easily be mistranslated into personal biographies.
“Transient Love” — the album’s spacey, dirge of a centerpiece — finds Barnett stumbling through a haze of regret. As he describes the physical space keeping him from his love, he also laments the loosening grasp of time. The graying atmospheres of days and distance blur into each other as he sings “Now I’m 5,000 miles / from her head on my shoulder / from a night I spent sober / screamin’ ‘I’m gonna die’.” Against a droning bass line and meandering melodies, he almost sounds lost in the ebbs of the song. And yet, three and a half minutes into the song he finds a new tone, surging into the lines:
“You should have seen the view from the pension / it made me think of things we never mentioned / the things we’re too afraid to say / like what if I spent the next few years / just somewhere in some atmosphere / while you’re at home with bills to pay / I hope it doesn’t end this way.”
On the strength of this conclusion he sounds almost demanding. “Transient Love”’s portrayal of the divide between being “in some atmosphere” and the deadpan reality of being at home paying bills brings to light the hinge that Rented World swings on. The differences between wild fantasies and banal minutiae — between drifting metaphors and tightly focused realities — persist like sunlight shining through a storm cloud. As Barnett bravely faces the tangled disconnects in his perception, he finds ways to base his wondering in what it is he knows. Later, on “Nothing Feels Good Anymore”, he sets the tone by imagining himself as a fly trying to get attention, but on the other side of a thundering chorus he segues into the specifics of a house party to bring himself back to a reality he can understand. The middle stretch of Rented World is packed with similar dichotomies, and the fatalism that Barnett feels in those situations.
Listening to the album start to finish is not unlike witnessing repeated intoxication and sobering up. If Barnett’s transportational metaphors and lucid dreams (“Bad Things”, “Rodent”) are realized in a fit of other-mindedness, the contrast of his clear, concrete realizations (“When I Died”, “In Remission”) serve to drive home his inner turmoil. His work on Rented World is fearless in its introspection, while remaining deeply empathetic in its delivery.
While bravery can be beautifully performed, its self-indulgent tendencies make it a difficult pill to swallow at times. Rented World is a massively dense album conveyed through a series of tiny pictures that all deserve attention of their own. Its grasp of bizarre and challenging trials is impressive, while its performance is precise and bold. However, the crutch of the brave introspection that The Menzingers serve up is that it can be hard to take in pieces. To be sure, Rented World is full of great songs, but its overall attitude of confrontational understanding can be an overload at times. It will stand tall for years on the resolution of its themes and the charisma of its storytelling, but the casual listener may turn away before cashing in on this gem.