When Brent Knopf parted ways with Menomena less than a year after the release of their fourth album, Mines, the future of the band seemed uncertain. As a three-piece, the native Portlanders excelled at creating dense, lyrically rich, multi-layered songs that could play just as well in a small, intimate venue as they could in a large-scale arena. But it could be argued that the original trio’s internal struggles are what kept them from gaining greater commercial success. Attentive listeners could detect the stress and strain of poor communication and infighting throughout Mines, each track drenched in melancholy seemingly spawned by the band’s rocky relationship. What makes Menomena’s new album, Moms, so revelatory, then, is that the two remaining members, Justin Harris and Danny Seim, have managed to not only fill Knopf’s vacancy with a more lively, focused, and commanding sound, but that they’ve done it so confidently and with such restless spirit. It’s as if Knopf’s departure was like a giant boulder being lifted from their chests.
Whereas Mines was cold and littered with songs that seemed to bear the weight of the band’s communication problems, Moms comes off as downright soulful, almost tender, a fluid and unruffled affair. There’s a real warmth to Moms, a unified set that finds both Harris and Seim at the peak of their creativity, delivering ballads that pay tribute to the women who brought them into the world (Harris was raised solely by his mom, while Seim’s mother died when he was young). The opening track, “Plumage,” is cleverly told from the perspective of a troubled woman, who’s caught up in the search for a reliable mate as the burdens of aging take a toll on her body. The lyric “I was once tragically hip and beautifully fine/Now my beautiful hips are tragically wide” is at once somber, insightful, and somehow humorous. In fact, the album’s first six tracks all posses an air of raw emotion and sarcastic wit that’s unlike anything Menomena has ever produced.
In a perfect world, the shoegaze-esque “Capsule,” with its endlessly catchy, fuzzy guitar riff, would be a radio hit. “Baton” is the closest Moms comes to eclipsing the alluring gloom of Mines. It’s a dead mother’s lullaby that slowly turns into a nightmare, with lyrics that incrementally shift from fragile to frightening: “I wish you were my mother and I wish I couldn’t hear/I wish these memory lanes promoted growth instead of fear/I wish I wasn’t forced to rob a grave to pull you near.” On the flip side, the cascading, Blur-like “Heavy Is As Heavy Does” is a shunning of the past rather than a longing for it, a lyrical burning of family trees and a proper “Fuck you, Dad” anthem if there ever was one.
As memorable as the lyrics are on Moms, its biggest strength is the way Harris and Seim’s already quite similar vocals and contrasting worldviews effectively intertwine. When Moms achieves its climax roughly halfway through, with all its themes cohering on the head-bobbing “Giftshoppe,” the pair temporarily become eager-to-learn boys again, realizing how time destroys, heals, and reveals all wounds: “You perverted aging thug/What age did your mind get stuck?/Why are your teeth just like mine?/And you wave back, but my hand goes up.”
Unfortunately, Moms closes with the overly dramatic, queasy “One Horse.” Menomena unnecessarily tacks a shaky epilogue onto an album that’s nearly a flawless two-act play about the bonds of family. However, all that comes before is golden, if not groundbreaking, with Harris and Seim demolishing any doubt that they could carry on the ingenious might of Menomena as a duo. They’ve surely made their mothers, wherever they may be, proud.