by Dan Manning (@mandanning)
A disclaimer before I begin this review: Merchandise are one of my favorite bands currently putting out music, and their 2012 record Children of Desire is easily in my top 25 (if not top 10) records of all time. With that being said, I had almost lost faith in them after hearing 2014’s After The End. It wasn’t because they had decided to become a pop band, I was actually fairly excited upon hearing the premise of them “going for it,” but what lost me was the neutrality of the songwriting. Part of what made Merchandise so attractive to me was the coolness, the attitude of it all. They could have carried it over into a pop setting, but they were not able to.
Their latest effort, A Corpse Wired For Sound, is equal parts a step forward and backwards. In between records, front man Carson Cox did some exploring, both geographically and personally. Floating between Italy, Berlin, and New York, the Florida native formed the duo Death Index with Italian hardcore veteran Marco Rapisarda, crafting a unique experiment in industrial and noise that echoed The Birthday Party and Suicide. This, combined with Cox’s immersion into the underground club scene while in Berlin, seems to have allowed him to get back to his dirty, noisy roots. Cox takes some of what he learned and re-discovered in his time off, and siphons it into Merchandise’s best record since Children of Desire.
The very first moments of A Corpse Wired For Sound bring back the same dreamy romanticism found in the band’s earlier material, with a nice added layer of clarity. The flanged out guitar lines and Cox’s croon have never sounded quite so clear, while still maintaining that all-important attitude and character. The first few tracks contain a healthy mix of live drums and slinking, creeping drum machine loops that provide a new dynamic flow to the songwriting. Even the loops themselves have an added bite to them, verging on industrial sounding. In fact, the beat for the third track “Right Back To The Start” sounds eerily identical to the opening groove of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats. Lyrically, Cox spins a much more refined narrative throughout this track than he really ever has before.
The album is sequenced wonderfully, each track a comfortable and intriguing change from the one previous. While the opening numbers are truly great, the album really hits its stride with the trio of “Lonesome Sound,” “Shadow of the Truth,” and “Silence.” “Lonesome Sound” is the epitome of that attitude I keep referring to; the lead and rhythm guitars are a beautiful balance of hazy reverb and acoustic jangle, and Cox’s croon stands right in the middle with a cowboy-like swagger. The latter two tracks “Shadow of the Truth” and “Silence” are the two best Merchandise tracks I’ve heard in years. They are dark, brooding, massive, and mean in all the right places. They are similar in sound to one another, but only in a way that allows them to flow together perfectly, and never once coming across as a stylistic repetition.
The one shortcoming of the album comes in the final moments, insofar as the penultimate acoustic ballad “I Will Not Sleep Here” would have worked much better as the album’s closer. Nevertheless, the track is a beautiful one with Cox pushing his voice higher than he has on a good majority of the record, floating lightly in and out of an airy falsetto.
While I understand the intent of not ending an album on the emotional high point (see: Turn On The Bright Lights, The Queen Is Dead), closer “My Dream Is Yours” feels like a bit of a throwaway in comparison to an album that is so strong from the get-go. With that said, the track has a particular dissonance to it that brings to mind cuts from the band’s earliest records like “I Locked The Door” or “Schoolyard.”
A Corpse Wired For Sound is an incredibly satisfying return to form for a band that seemed to be losing touch. Merchandise pull from their past and push their sound further into different stylistic corners with renewed vigor. Despite its rather apathetic title, there is noticeable effort and self-confidence across the record’s 9 tracks. Dare I say they even sound as if they’re enjoying themselves quite a bit through the different sonic experiments. Laced underneath those experimentations however is an undeniably strong pop-sensibility; the hooks, the guitar lines, and the grooves are all catchy as hell, and are accomplished without sacrificing the character and soul of the band.