On previous albums New Moon and Tomorrow’s Hits, The Men were coming to your town to help you party down, even as their reputation as unpredictable shapeshifters was starting to feel overstated. And then 2016’s Devil Music happened, the first truly shocking thing the Brooklyn collective had done in years. Sure, it was caustic and no-fi like their embryonic days before signing to Sacred Bones, but its exceedingly bitter attitude towards the entire music making process declared that they were living a lie during a run of five good-to-excellent albums in five years where they presented themselves as living proof of rock ‘n roll’s restorative power. “We had publicists and managers and agents up our ass every second,” Mark Perro groused in a 2016 interview, revealing that 2014’s Tomorrow’s Hits had been done by 2012 and the well had gone dry until 2015. But even putting aside their return to Sacred Bones, the band’s new album Drift is just as much of a shock as Devil Music for the opposite reason—it’s the sound of a once-uncompromising band trying to course correct.
That includes “Maybe I’m Crazy,” the leadoff track that wants to get across a message of “forget everything you know about the Men.” Telling the guitarmy to stand down should be heretical, but if you had to wager what would result in the first synth-powered Men song, your first guess would be Suicide, right? The trajectory from Immaculada to Tomorrow’s Hits appeared to span the entirety of New York underground rock, from the scuzziest No Wave to the upstate pastoralia of an album actually called Campfire Songs. But seven albums in, it’s increasingly apparent that the Men ripped up the rulebook only to replace it with a tastemaker rock mag’s Best of the Decade list. Aside from an occasional deviation into bowl-passing freak folk, the bulk of Drift stays within a classic rock block, from the peaceful easy feeling of a three-beer buzz (“Rose on Top of the World”) to mug-throwing Stooge-rawk (“Killed Someone”) to a last-call blues so spare you can hear the brooms sweeping (“When I Held You In My Arms”).
It’s no more mixtape-like than anything else they’ve done, but Drift feels unusually scattered despite its lean runtime. It’s mostly a matter of sequencing, as Drift tends to bifurcate into “rawk” and “rock,” often placing the most incompatible moments consecutively. Without the sense of flow and pacing that made Open Your Heart as immersive as albums like Since I Left You or Endtroducing, all that’s left is the temptation to spend each one doing a mental Shazam to spot the influence. Yeah, some of it sounds like Tom Petty and Neil Young, but without any of the sturdy hooks or emotional center, it doesn’t feel like it. Drift never creates a sense of stakes, save for heated discussions about whether “Secret Light” sounds more like the Doors or Can.
If you want to go there, sure: there’s an unfortunate poetic justice to Drift. A band called The Men working entirely within a codified dude-rock canon sounding directionless in 2018. Then again, just remember Brooklyn indie rock ca. 2011 and how much “relevancy” mattered when “If You Leave…” smacked the Tito’s Vodka right out of your hands. It goes to show how much momentum and enthusiasm was responsible for making the Men sound urgent. They were never known as a “lyrics band,” which made their memorable ones all the more important: “I’ve got a rock band now and I’m on a roll,” “I just quit my job, now I can stay out all night long,” etc. Trust that “Turn it Around,” “Half Angel Half Light” and “Different Days” are still some of the most potent wish-fulfilment rock of the decade, but Drift is just the Men at work.