Greg Mendez is a Haunting, Lucid Portrait of Addiction and Complicated Grief

Music Reviews Greg Mendez
Greg Mendez is a Haunting, Lucid Portrait of Addiction and Complicated Grief

“Picking up the things you left / I never thought I’d be so upset” are the lines Greg Mendez uses to open his new, self-titled album. It’s a fitting entrance for the Philadelphian, as he spends the next nine songs putting back together the fragments of his own life—attempting to understand the absurdity of his own truth and what hard damage has met him on the road to clarity. “No, it’s not the way that you are / It’s what you soon will be / Don’t Go,” he surrenders at the album’s end. Ever the master of his storytelling craft, Mendez makes a bookend out of imagery that can be plugged into anyone’s own correspondence with the world around them. Greg Mendez is one man’s vulnerable, open book made accessible to anyone who might find something courageous or trusting within it.

We are slowly approaching the year’s halfway point, and few albums have hit in all of the right spots quite like Greg Mendez. It’s a slow-burn, as each track moves at its own pace and aches to unfurl. The presentation of these nine songs matches the story behind the whole project’s conception: Mendez spent nearly 15 years writing it, often reworking and reframing arrangements and visions until—after time’s arrow dared to leave him behind—he found a final shape. He’s been an instrumental part of the Philly DIY scene for just as long as he’s been making this album. Closing track “Hoping You’re Doing Okay” was a demo as early as 14 years ago, long before Mendez ever released an LP or kicked his drug habit.

The characters we meet along the way on Greg Mendez are all imperfect in some form or another, but their interactions with our narrator are wholly the opposite. “You got the radio playing and all I can think is to change it to some shit I hate / It’s better than something that you like,” Mendez sings on “Best Behavior.” The song “Maria” was inspired by him getting arrested at a crack den, on which he wrestles with the pros and cons of addiction: “Earlier that day we were both clean / But then somebody said / Come back to me because it’s easy / Come back to me, I’ll make you happy.”

To spend time with Greg Mendez is to understand that the man who has written it is unafraid of plunging into the painful, heavy stuff. From drug use to heartbreak to childhood trauma to houselessness, Mendez offers a loving embrace drenched with hindsight to his former self. In turn, the album is not a critique of his past, but an attempt at understanding how it informs his personhood in the present. “I still hope your name don’t appear in some obituary / I know it’s so unclear / When you’ve begged so long on bruised knees,” he sings in a fit of worry on “Hoping You’re Doing Okay,” fearful that an old drug friend’s own self-destruction has irreversibly totaled their love for one another.

Greg Mendez is a singer/songwriter album down to the bone, and Mendez populates the tracklist with recoiling and punctuated stories that are as humorous as they are heartbreaking. It’s a fine line for any musician to tiptoe across, but Mendez has deftly widened the rope. His use of sparse instrumentation—which range from spatial synthesizers to finger-picked guitar montages—emphasizes the narratives and elevates them to the forefront of each composition. These songs could live anywhere, glazed upon any arrangement, but they are momentarily affixed with hollow membranes of dainty, muted acoustic arpeggios. What Mendez has given us is perfect and proper, with moments that will surprise you—like the lush, hypnotic instrumental non-sequitur at the end of “Bad Behavior.”

As I return to Greg Mendez each time, it is the storytelling that catches my gaze. I find a new line to love, or a new image to remember. On “Sweetie,” it’s “Fuck I’m paranoid, like my mom / And I wished she would say / ‘Sweetie I’m going away / ‘Cause I don’t love you’”; on “Cop Caller,” it’s “I know you’re scheming again tonight / But you’re sincerely upset so I ask you what you want / But the late night stores don’t keep it stocked.” The best songwriters can take visceral moments from their lives and bend them to the palettes of the people listening to them unfold, so they can inject themselves into these spaces; Mendez’s ability to leave that door cracked for the rest of us is what makes him one of our subtlest geniuses.

There is a familiarity in Mendez’s approach. Many will tap the Alex G sign and make direct comparisons—and I suppose he does share a resemblance in certain areas—but, as I cascade across the painful magic of Greg Mendez again and again, I quickly realize that the architecture of his work is rendered much differently. His melancholic, grieving delivery arrives like a deadpan cadence from someone who is still ironing out the details of his own clarity. It’s this kind of fixture that illustrates the charming, sincere urgency of the album; how it demonstrates Mendez spinning a eulogy into a beacon of hope. On “Clearer Picture (Of You)”—a song Mendez started penning in the early 2010s—he ruminates on how affection couldn’t heal a broken relationship: “Maybe I could pretend / It wasn’t like this ‘til the very end / And goddamn you sure had suffered enough / But my love couldn’t cover it up,” he sings.

“I love you and you’ll always be my friend,” Mendez opines on the album opener “Rev. John / Friend.” The recounts of addiction and relationships often arrive blurred across the album, as Mendez appears fully aware of how those separate parts of his life are not so separated at all. Each song is a wry-yet-earnest vignette of a lived-in world and its ongoing repair. At the end of Greg Mendez, there isn’t some great moral to the story. The conclusion isn’t a satisfying finale to a hero’s journey. Instead, we get the truth: Our narrator is still with us and he has lived to tell us about all of the times where that almost wasn’t the case.

I’m often weary of self-titled albums. What frames the decision to name a record after yourself? In a nifty gesture of clever brilliance that only Greg Mendez could make, this project is not about him so much as it is an homage to the people he loved during a dark part of his life. Where those people are now is an unanswerable question, but—until the very last note—Greg Mendez vows to keep their light suspended in the space its tracklist holds, where our hearts want to believe that—like Mendez himself—they all made it out.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He is from Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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