Moms is a record that almost never was. Menomena’s last album–2010’s Mines–was such a strong product that it was easy to bypass all the work surrounding it, specifically the “gruelling” recording sessions the band endured to make it. When the departure of band member Brent Knopf was announced at the start of 2011 there was an ounce or two of worry that presented itself, that Menomena might cease to exist from thereon in. Menomena might be a self-confessed “democratic” band, with no sole member taking frontman position, but Knopf was undeniably a huge chunk of the band’s appeal. “We lost a major creative force in Brent, but thankfully, Brent’s not Kurt Cobain, and we’re not Nirvana. Brent’s more like Peter Gabriel and we’re more like Genesis,” one of the remaining members Danny Seim said. “And everyone knows how much better Genesis got after that talentless hack Gabriel quit. Waitaminute…”
What you might expect of Moms then is not what you get. It was recorded with the band’s “most collaborative and peaceful” sessions, yet it feels scrappier and tenser than Mines. Part of the appeal of Mines was its articulation (which at no doubt came at the expense of some of the band member’s sanity), and while Moms is precise in a similar way, the attention to detail isn’t quite as first-rate–but that fact suits the new record better. Moms feels a little frayed around the edges, but it matches the subject matter, which, unsurprisingly, leans heavily on the subject of mothers and familial ties and bonds.
Maturity often blossoms from death, and when that someone is your mother, things can fall apart everywhere. Moms is about growing up, being adults, and dealing with reality head on. “Now you made me/ With no clue as how to raise me/ To be a stand up man/ You brought me into this shit-show/ Without a penny or a plan” Justin Harris sings during “Pique,” like he both sympathizing and attacking his mother, who raised him alone. Strangely the rest of the song’s fractured sentiments read like someone who is playing to their deceased mother, like they’re letting them down. “I try my best/ I guess my best is not enough” is a confidence issue a mother might reassure a child about, but here he sings it like he can’t do anything to make her proud. “Now I’m a failure/ Cursed with male genitalia/ A parasitic fuck” he surmises, like he trying to live up to his mother’s example, but is doomed to fail because of his gender. The music follows suit, beginning with a defeated accordion hum before whipping itself up into a flurry of staccato guitars and saxophone and then eventually extinguishing itself.
The front half of the record deals with the weightiest issues of all this loss and let down. “Baton” has Seim trying to find solace in religion, specifically images of Mary, who is “conveniently buried this evening.” One of Justin’s songs–“Heavy Is As Heavy Does”–follows, and it has a line that seems to scream out to anyone who can’t explain why grief draws them to certain things: “I’m not one for religion but I can’t seem to ditch this imagery.” Matching the title of the song, the music becomes heavier with each set of verses. “Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked up family tree,” is the line that begins the song and the guitar that rips into the picture midway sounds like a chainsaw tearing it down. Justin tries his best to hold it up, finally blaring out halfway to defeat, “I can’t breathe.”
Once the swishy synths and tumbling drums of “Giftshoppe” fade away (where Seim clears out his deceased mother’s trailer), the overarching sense of emotional wrought lets up. Instead Seim and Justin seem to focus on how their upbringings have affected them as adults and human beings–and they don’t even try to paint themselves in a flattering light. It’s pretty clear what “Skintercourse” is about, if not from its title then definitely from a line like, “I fell in love with the feeling of my own hands/ Stretching back/ Letting go,” but it seeks to go further than just being an indulgent narcissistic rant in itself. It looks at the consequence of behaviour inflicted on and by one’s self, and how a broken relationship can fuel violent hatred. On “Don’t Mess With Latexus” he confesses “I don’t admit to much these days” beside an astoundingly powerful sax riff that could rally an army, if not knock a whole one out. There’s even a nod to Menomena’s split itself, with the line “I was a monster once,” which could both be seen a reference to the band’s 2003 album I Am The Fun Blame Monster, or just to Seim and Justin’s aging minds and habits.
While it’s always sad to see a band break apart, Moms is perfect evidence that Menomena are still more than capable of holding their own. Some might be saddened that Knopf’s slower, piano-focused songs are missing from the mix, but in a way it’s a blessing. Moms excels in near-hostility, in sounding shameful without sounding coy and embarrassed, in sounding melancholic without sounding stereotypically bland and gloomy. It’s a love-letter to the life that’s past, accumulating in a 10-minute exploration through strings and piano, like someone wandering through a darkened garden after just being told some life-changing news. In a nutshell Moms is a charming ode to Seim and Justin’s mothers, and is a much less gaudy way of expressing their thanks, gratitude, and love than having “MOM” tattooed across their arm. Moms is a record that almost never was, but one you’re grateful that came into existence.