Open Your Heart
[Sacred Bones, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, September 7, 2012
Listen: “Open Your Heart”
When an artist has let their fanbase become comfortable with and reliant on a certain ethos to be found within their work, the inevitable growth that has to take place for the artist to progress tends to alienate or confuse those living in that comfort and reliance. More and more we see artists drastically shifting their sound from album to album, even song to song, allowing their music to grow with the spirit which it emits from. Typically, these changes are met with general acceptance; there will, of course, be the hundred or so comments on the artist’s threads dispersed throughout the World Wide Web calling the artist a “sellout” or longing for the days of old—usually a mere year ago—a time when the artist was producing the “good stuff.” It seems to be one of the pitfalls of the music industry, the fact that fans want an artist to remain a snapshot of their life at the time of the creation of what is conceived as their best work. Humans aren’t snapshots, though. They’re living and breathing moving pictures, and a lot of time artists are placed in some impossible area of beyond-human existence, where the product of living surpasses living itself. Luckily, art doesn’t stop to consider what the hundreds of disgruntled internet posters may have to say about it, and the artists making it are happy to leave them behind with their year-old snapshots. The majority of the consuming culture of art welcomes change, and when the Brooklyn-based band The Men put forth Open Your Heart, a more straight-forward answer to the noisy post-punk that had become expected of them, we were (mostly) just fine with it.
With their punishing record from last year, Leave Home, The Men established themselves as bringers of unbridled, ferocious rock music that was deeply rooted in hardcore and post-punk tendencies. The band we last heard chugging their way through “Night Landing,” the unrelenting closer to Leave Home, has undergone a structural change, losing bassist Chris Hansell—a large part of the massive sound on their first two records. The band’s work ethic didn’t skip a beat, however. The Men has churned out records at a breakneck pace since their formation, and showed no signs of slowing down, even in the midst of replacing a key member. Open Your Heart comes right on the heels of Leave Home, released a mere six months after the critically-acclaimed record. Perhaps due to the close proximity of the two records on a calendar, Open Your Heart feels like a natural progression for the band; when listened to back-to-back, “Night Landing” somewhat easily flows into Open Your Heart opener “Turn It Around.” The record itself has a similar flow to it, in fact. Open Your Heart plays like a low-fidelity suite, running the gamut of styles and visions of America, from the earliest western expanses to the gutters of New York.
The aforementioned “Turn It Around” begins the record with the familiar wall of fuzzy guitars and thunderous drums, but it is almost immediately evident that we are in for a different side of The Men. Where Leave Home was dark and brooding, with free-flying, yelped vocals seemingly struggling to break through the layers of noise they are buried in, Open Your Heart is somewhat upbeat and accessible—melodic, even. It’s almost as if in breaking through those layers, principle songwriters Mark Perro and Nick Chiericozzi have allowed a little sunshine to creep into the typically dark spaces their music occupies. “Turn It Around” has all of the raw power we’ve come to expect from The Men, but there is a keen sense of melody and tightly constructed songcraft on display that has, up to this point, been absent in their music. I suppose this is where the dissent will come in, because there are surely lots of people out there who weren’t really missing keen sense of melody and tightly constructed songcraft in The Men’s music.
“Turn It Around” seamlessly gives way to “Animal,” a glimpse into the world The Men have typically occupied on their past records—Perro howls unintelligibly over Rich Samis menacingly attacking his drum set and guitars sounding like jackhammers fighting against asphalt. “Animal” is probably the noisiest The Men take their music on Open Your Heart, but there is still something inviting about the major-key punk romp that they color the track with. Basically, instead of just taking it in all its brutality, and loving every minute of it, The Men allow the listener to approach the music less warily than before, peering into the band’s sound instead of being reeled by it—while also loving every minute of it. “Country Song” is a slow-burning instrumental comprised of flanging guitars that resemble dust being whipped around by a swirling wind on the prairie. Those winds only seem to pick up with “Oscillation,” a seven-minute, largely instrumental tune of high-flying guitars weaving around one another, constantly building and picking up speed. The track feels like a celebration; there is no hiding the joy these guys get from making music when listening to “Oscillation,” whether it is Ben Greenberg’s punchy bass plugging along underneath the piercing, communicative guitar lines or the fact that sparse vocals appear at the song’s peak—seemingly impromptu musings borne from a loss of inhibition, the type of feeling that only comes from a group of musicians letting a track naturally blossom into something bigger than themselves.
I believe the thing that makes Open Your Heart so cohesive and natural is the comfort level with which these songs are played; not only does “Oscillation” open itself up to near jam-band level bliss, but each song has the same loose approach to it. The title track sees The Men fire through a fast-paced exploration of the flower punks within them, complete with a blisteringly fractured guitar solo—one of seemingly dozens of blisteringly fractured guitar solos. The track showcases the diversity at hand throughout the record and how, somehow, it makes perfect sense for the punk bravado to sit alongside swirling psychedelia of “Oscillation” and the country twang of “Candy”—the latter of which Perro and Chiericozzi claim stemmed from a deep-rooted obsession with Gram Parsons. The Men play by their own rules, and when a band does so many styles so naturally and honest, the only thing to do is go along with it. Trip out to the psychedlia, slamdance in your bedroom to the punk, and throw on your boots and ten gallon hat for the country. It’s all welcome on Open Your Heart.
Ultimately, the record is sure to alienate some fans who have been there from the beginning, as is the case with any given album by and given artist at any given time. The thing is, though, The Men never claimed to be any one thing. They have always done one thing very well, and that is to play rock and roll music. Nothing has changed in that regard. Perhaps naming the record Open Your Heart is more than something to fill space on record sleeve; they are asking their fans to come along for the ride, to accept changes in their lives and the changes that will be reflected in their music. After all, they’re not snapshots. They’re humans, and much like any given listener’s work doesn’t define them, the music that musicians make isn’t what defines them as people. It’s actually quite the opposite.