Back in 2011, Merchandise frontman Carson Cox pronounced; "Genres are not for us". And it's a sentiment that the group have managed to stand by; defining their career by a wanton reluctance towards definition. A persistent desire for reinvention that seems almost like a perverse nod to the non-conformity of their beginnings in Tampa's hardcore scene.
Merchandise's roots may remain in Floridian musical subcultures, but they were never a punk band per se. More amorphous in nature, their sound has moved from post-punk and alt-rock to the shimmering extended reverb of 2013's Totale Nite. A journey which, if distilled to its essence, can be summed up like this: they've just been searching for a bloody tremendous pop tune. And After The End - their debut on 4AD - is the culmination of that journey. The band transitioning into the sort of slick act those punk forbears would likely turn their nose-rings up at. Softening the rough edges and removing the extended psyche-jazz jams, but retaining the emotional resonance and clear pop nouse; something which has always seen them stand out form the crowd.
If you need guidance, then the road map to this new sound is in their singles, which feel more immediate than anything they've released before. 'Enemy' and 'Little Killer' wrapping Cox's lush vocals in taught melodies and a full-tilt jangle. While 'Green Lady' drives the point home at a more luxurious pace. Its swooning balladry masked by dense percussion and a wash of soaring guitars. A midpoint between The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen and Depeche Mode - but with a touch of R.E.M thrown in for good measure. While 'Telephone' - which should be a single - rattles along with a hypnotic swagger, the recursive bass eventually undercut by Cox's desperate, muted pleas of loneliness. The key element to each of these tracks is their vitality, each delivered with a urgency hitherto unseen from the Tampa group.
That's not to say Merchandise lose momentum when slowing the pace. 'Life Outside The Mirror' is a stunning, gauzy wave of sound, Cox's falsetto a guiding light through the haze. While 'After The End' (the longest track on the album at seven minutes) and 'Looking Glass Waltz', both crawl with atmospheric shimmer. Guitars duelling against a heaving piano on the former, while Cox's croon on the latter connects the line between Ian McCulloch and Morrissey -- with just as much intensity and soul, but far less pretension than the comparison suggests. Then there's 'Exile And Ego', which is the sort of subdued closer that could easily burst into overblown rock shudder in lesser hands, but here remains tightly reigned in. "Help me do what's right" rings Cox's voice across spare accompaniment, as mortality draws a curtain over the finale.
It won't win many points for originality - indeed they may lose a few old fans along the way - but this is the sound of a band reborn. Yes, it's essentially an indie revivalists love letter, caught somewhere between British late-80's swoon and US college radio. But you'll rarely see it done better. Merchandise finally showcasing a pop brio that proves they're ready for the big rooms. After all, the past is a fast receding memory, so where better to restart than After The End?
7Tom Fenwick's Score