Merchandise introduce After the End with the unabashed, jangly pop of “Enemy,” guitars upfront and in harmony, a pumping rhythm and Carson Cox’s tone-perfect baritone mixed clean and shimmering. The DIY punk and drum-machine thrashing from their earlier releases is gone. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Tampa Bay trio, now expanded to five members, has always hinted at shifting gears – the band’s catalog is filled with the aspirations of pop dreamers. Merchandise often runs the gamut of thrashers, jammers and ballads, the only remaining constant being Cox’s heart-on-sleeve lyrical melancholy.
After the End, the band’s first full-length for legendary indie 4AD, functions largely as power-pop and maintains a level of existential dread and abstraction. On songs like “True Moment” the guitar melodies loom large, the drums sound like they’re filling an arena and Cox’s voice is resonant, but his words let darkness creep in: “Composed with the cruelty of kindness/ Her arms outstretched, her lips ajar/ I’d have her arrested but she has no hands.”
“Life Outside the Mirror,” one of several slow-burner ballads, harkens to various early Merchandise songs and feels like the cleaned-up Wilco homage they were always destined to make. The songwriting is still strong but the new sound and pop inclinations provide After the End with missteps. “Telephone” channels Tim-era Replacements with musical precision but none of the bite. “Looking Glass Waltz” feels listless and phoned-in. Like all their previous recordings, After the End was produced by the band, but the mixing was outsourced to famed engineer and producer Gareth Jones (’80s Depeche Mode, Erasure, Nick Cave). His mark is found all throughout the record. Instruments are mixed to perfection, the drums boom with reverb and the guitars are pitched up to Echo & the Bunnymen levels, but the compromise of making a pop record leaves After the End with a lamentable lack of energy.