On Wednesday, Merchandise released a video for the first single from their upcoming 4AD debut, After The End. The track is called “Little Killer”, and for fans of the Tampa, Florida group, it displays a remarkable shift in aesthetic. This shouldn’t come across as too surprising, though; in an interview with NME earlier this year, lead singer Carson Cox said this about After The End: “It's really funny, there are no long songs on the LP. This next LP is the most proper pop record we have ever done.” If “Little Killer” is any indication, then Cox was certainly accurate in his declaration of the band’s altered sound.
Unlike the '80s-tinged post punk of 2012’s Kartorga Works-released Children of Desire and 2013’s Night People-released Totale Nite, “Little Killer” (and its accompanying video) falls under the sort of “indie pop” that belongs in quotation marks. The retro synth and candy-coated Strokesian guitar riffs create a hook catchy enough to earn itself a Best New Track™ stamp of approval from our pointy-tipped friends across the blogosphere. “Little Killer” is also the first recorded Merchandise song with real drums, and at times the song seems to highlight a sort of optimistically glittery interpretation of previous material in lieu of their familiar maudlin perspicuity. That said, the song’s core chord progression is characteristically elongated and complex, and Cox’s voice is still as Moz’d out and emotive as ever.
The video for “Little Killer”—directed by Cox—features the frontman donning lipstick and black Wayfarers, faux-performing with his bandmates in front of an intentionally unconcealed green screen. Cheesy infinite mirror effects and sloppy zoom-ins and outs bring to mind the public access discombobulation of Tim & Eric. Again, the video depicts Merchandise as “indie pop” in its assuredly Urban Outfitters-endorsed breed of irony.
In the NME interview, Cox indicates that the songs for the new record were written and tweaked after Merchandise signed to 4AD. This brings up a pretty vexing question: did they intentionally alter their sound knowing they’d be marketed to a wider audience? “Little Killer”, with its three-minute runtime, is certainly more palatable than some of their other songs, like the eleven-minute post-punk opus “Become What You Are” or the feedback-laden “I Locked The Door”—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a shift in ethos that’s familiar, a change a friend of mine dubbed “indieflation.” Indieflation denotes either the rise in a band’s booking cost or a band’s ability to pick and choose how it presents itself (interviews, venues they play, touring schedules) due to a rise in popularity.
For examples of indieflation, we can look at bands like Parquet Courts and The Men. Both bands incubated in New York’s underground scene, and once they began to rise in popularity, seemed to shift their focus to reaching a wider audience. Parquet Courts’ upcoming album Sunbathing Animal is being released by Mom + Pop Records (Andrew Bird, Cloud Nothings, Wavves), and now the group tends to play shows at larger venues and interview with big corporate outlets to the exclusion of smaller ones. The Men’s last record, Tomorrow’s Hits, sounds more like country than the punkish rock’n’roll of their earlier releases. Like Merchandise, it’s hard to tell if The Men changed their sound once they gained popularity (a.k.a. gained positive coverage from Pitchfork), but more people definitely heard the new stuff when it was released.
This is the sort of activity people tend to fallaciously term “selling out.” Bands don’t just “sell out”; they progress and change across time and context. And in the case of Merchandise—a band that’s been around since 2008—the change is understandable. They started out making incredibly lo-fi Casio and drum machine punk experiments, transitioned to the Smiths-esque post-punk of Children of Desire, and upon signing to 4AD it looks like they’ve taken an informed pop route with After The End. Admittedly, I’m using “Little Killer” as the face of Merchandise’s new sound, which is an assumption based on Cox’s comments regarding the upcoming record. But still, Merchandise’s shift from a mostly punk to a very pop sensibility feels abrupt and contrived, a shift that seems to stem directly from signing to an upper tier indie label. Like I said earlier, it’s an understandable change, an attempt to appeal to the wider audience they will inevitably reach as a result of being signed to 4AD.
As a larger trend in music, indieflation is a tricky subject. On the one hand, it’s great to see a band you love get big; on the other, you'd hope they wouldn't forget all the “little people” who helped them achieve that success. And it definitely raises an eyebrow when that same band changes their sound or attitude once they begin to get big. I’m not totally sure if indieflation is necessarily a good or bad thing, or simply a fact of rising in popularity, but it is certainly a phenomenon worth noting. We’ll just have to wait and see how it affects Merchandise this time around.
After The End is set for release on August 25 via 4AD.