The end came on April Fool’s Day 2013. According to Merchandise, on the day they released ‘Totale Nite’, their band changed forever. In January, frontman Carson Cox told NME their dramatic third album and its mesh of guitars, electronic drums and brass signalled “the end of the book, of everything I knew”.
The book began in the 2000s when Cox and lead guitarist David Vassalotti played in hardcore bands in Florida’s Tampa Bay. They broke away to record mopey, poppier songs in Cox’s bedroom closet. Bassist Patrick Brady joined and Merchandise released several tapes and EPs (still available for free on their crummy WordPress site). In 2010, tinny LP ‘(Strange Songs) In The Dark’ hinted at melody. ‘Children Of Desire’ sparked hype in 2012. It gave Cox’s sumptuous croon space amidst unhurried noise, lending his love songs more weight. Fronted by the charming motormouth, there was something about these punks emerging from the middle of nowhere into the music press. “I’m really connected to my childhood, when all I listened to was ‘La Bamba’ and Buddy Holly,” Cox told Pitchfork in 2012.
After eventually signing to 4AD this January, Cox promised to ”re-make Merchandise as a pop band”, resolving to make a record unlike anything they’d done before. Built around chiming acoustic guitars, its opener ‘Corridor’ is blissful and cartoonish, like the opening to an old Disney film. It’s only a two-minute instrumental, but it’s vivid and brilliantly alien.
‘Enemy’ is even more so. Opening with more acoustic strumming and a wriggly noise from Vassalotti’s keyboard, its frisky drumbeat and indie-disco guitar are pricked by a bloody-minded Cox (“I just want to sing for myself this way”). Nodding to Camera Obscura, it betrays Merchandise’s beloved indie twee, until a contorting solo from Vassalotti deliberately toys with your perception of both song and band.
Backing vocals and guitar from Chris Horn and drums from man-mountain Elsner Niño illuminate ‘Enemy’. Enlisted after ‘Totale Nite’ and now living in Cox and Vassalotti’s rickety house, Merchandise’s fourth and fifth members add texture throughout. On the waltzing ‘Green Lady’, Niño’s arena-rock drums thud, Cox purrs and Horn’s breathy backing beckons another facemelter from Vassalotti.
The lead guitarist wrote four songs for ‘After The End’. He twangs patiently around Cox’s vocals on the undulating ‘True Monument’. ‘Life Outside The Mirror’ is even slower, Vassalotti’s structure and Cox’s broken vocals (“Are you ready to give it all away?”) trapping you inside it. This time, the solo is acoustic. It’s surprising, and just as awesome as when his foot’s jammed on the cosmic pedal.
The B-side delivers the two biggest shocks. Punks will hate ‘Telephone’ and ‘Little Killer’. The former bounces around Brady’s bassline like one long radio-ready chorus. ‘Little Killer’’s melody is indelible, boasting a Cure-like timelessness. Their peers and touring buddies Parquet Courts and Milk Music wouldn’t dream of attempting anything like it.
With a funereal organ, ‘Looking Glass Waltz’ starts a comedown that lasts until they channel The La’s on wispy finale ‘Exile And Ego’. In between, the title track drags desperate bleakness out for seven minutes. Following the earlier hooks with three wallowing ballads is a masterstroke. ‘After The End’ is full of them. Merchandise’s 4AD debut is an extrovert, indie-pop album from a punk band that can’t sit still. It’s clever, brave and seamless enough to become a classic.