Carson Cox didn’t know he sang like Morrissey until critics started bringing it up. The comparison should be obvious to anyone who waited out their teenage melancholy inside the Smiths’ discography, but in his mind, he got his vocal flair from the way his mother used to sing to him, not “some English guy.” Singing at the front of his band Merchandise, Cox has a sleepy, golden drawl that runs thick with innocence. It’s not hard to believe he hit on the same Smiths quirks by accident rather than deliberate imitation. Without Moz’s intentional theatricality, Cox sings like he’s imparting secrets instead of truths.
For a while, Merchandise were sheltered from the pressures of labeling their influences. Living in Tampa, Florida, Cox subsisted musically on dollar store vinyl and his favorite jazz. He didn’t have the money for new releases or a new computer to download them onto, populating his musical habitat solely with what was sold in his hometown. The first three Merchandise records emerged from this seclusion, stretching the rock form to loose jazz lengths. Now, with 4AD’s backing and presumably a brand-new collection of mp3s, the band return with their tightest, most polished work yet, After The End.
Gone are the 10-minute, brassy hurricanes that yawned through the track lists of Totale Nite and Children of Desire. After The End comes stacked with songs that fit comfortably inside rock music’s most superficial formatting. There aren’t any saxophone howls or extended jams. At first, it sounds like Merchandise are following all the rules. But even the band’s most groomed singles to date—”Enemy” and “Little Killer”, two glossy, riffy exertions that arrived complete with arty videos—slink away from the tension and release that propel traditional rock.
Instead of hooks, Merchandise hone in on mood, texture, and flow, creating a structural antithesis to the post-punk revivalists that float in their DNA. The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, and their contemporaries carved sweet, sharp bombast that carried them all the way to the radio; Merchandise take that generation’s aesthetic and invert it. “Enemy” sounds primed for a hook through its entire four and a half minutes but never gets there, repeating its “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff until the whole thing erupts in double-time. The release doesn’t come with the chorus. The song saturates itself on loop until it has nothing else to do but spill over.
After The End plays like post-punk learning how to be patient with itself. Merchandise never rush into resolution, but suspend moments across slow, steady lengths. The longer Cox looks inward, the more he sees to sing about. The album’s slow closer “Exile and Ego” strains his voice through close introspection. “Help me do what’s right, baby,” he sings, his syllables clouded over with the honey in his voice. On the plaintive “Looking Glass Waltz”, he spells out a sentiment that’s haunted songwriters from Neil Young to EMA: “I’m too young to feel this old.” “I’m through with begging for approval. I’m asking to be free,” Cox sings on “Green Lady”. It’s the closest the album comes to a mission statement; Cox’s songwriting doesn’t aim to please by gluing itself to pop templates, but follows his impulses to their fullest, freest expression.
After The End wears markers of rock while coursing down a stream of consciousness that almost hits closer to ambient music. It’s guitar pop that tracks back on the idea that pop needs to crystallize its melodies into bite-sized consumables. Merchandise tease hooks and then force you to spin your yearning around into yourself, to follow them through 10 songs of delayed gratification that complicate the mechanics of music and desire. A less charismatic band couldn’t sustain this much tension, but Merchandise shine beneath their newly sprinkled glitter.