The Mendoza Line
30 Year Low
imothy Bracy and Shannon McArdle, the Mendoza Line's songwriters, are parting ways after a decade together. At the end of this relationship, they're releasing 30 Year Low, a full-bodied statement jammed into a mini-album's snug jacket. Accompanying the new disc is news that the duo's marriage is ending, too, which casts a shadow over the eight new songs, making autobiographical (and empathetic) listening difficult to avoid. It's hard not to respond to the personal news, but it's almost as hard not to respond to the album even on its own terms.
The disc succeeds by merging a unity of sounds with a complex variety of emotions. After hinting at adultery when her spouse doesn't come home on "Since I Came," McArdle's narrator sings, "My husband dead without a service / Without grace." It's a bit of misdirection tying personal loss to the mistreatment of immigrant laborers. The song's pall lifts when the narrator manages to at least help her "two girls grow up to be free," but she immediately ties in her fear for them.
The song's country-influenced indie loses its pristine mellow as it fades into "Aspect of an Old Maid," in which McArdle and guest vocalist Will Sheff trade bitter remarks as the music rises to an unhappy romp. It's a Bracy-penned track, but Sheff's rambling vocal style matches the flow of words perfectly. The singers not only vent their rage, but also reveal the hurt they try so hard to tuck behind it, with McArdle's "It's hard to know just how to dress for the last days of our lives" and Sheff's insulting "I never thought I'd have to pay this much attention to one girl just to nail her."
Just two songs in, the band has already established an unforgettable intensity, and they never flag from that point on, starting with the guitar-heavy bar-band attack of McArdle's "31 Candles," a painful piece of kill-all-fools invective and the finest appearance of mature bile in recent rock. The music stays as driven as the lyrics, whether it be in the crumbling frenzy of "I Lost My Taste" or the slow roll of "Love on Parole." On the latter track, Bracy casually goes through heartbreak, making love, arguing, and war all a piece of domestic life, in which doctors die and "that was no one's wedding, baby—that was Pickett's charge." The relationship hinges on violent banalities, and it's the band's great art to keep the song so even-keeled that the emotional wreckage floats a still-life Frisbee. Bracy backs away just as calmly: "I was never that interested in you heart and soul," echoing the defensiveness of "Old Maid."
After all the controlled turmoil of the album's eight songs, the bonus disc sounds loose and carefree. Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent—a collection of 18 covers, live tracks, and outtakes—provides an out for the listener. Its performances are ragged and fun, but mostly inessential. The highlight comes immediately, with a cover of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and that's mostly the attitude here. The disc's more like a mix a friend hurriedly gives you for a long drive than any sort of big statement, and it ends things just as well.
On "Thirty Year Low," ostensibly a meditation on a financial fall, Bracy notes that "word on the street has gone from bad to slow," a clever phrase pointing out what's worse than worse and giving the after-fight its place. Silence settles without notice; eventually you just notice it's been quiet for a while. Fortunately, the Mendoza Line has given us fair warning, and while this album might be the low point of its member’s three decades, at least we can take it for one of our year's high points.