Late last week, Tom May — the 27-year-old singer and guitarist for the Philadelphia punk band the Menzingers — waited to board a plane at Texas' Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that would take him to his hometown of Scranton, Pa., for a cousin's wedding. It was one more reminder that he was no longer a kid, and hasn't been for a long time.
"People are getting married. People are dying. People are doing all of these things," May said on the phone. "We always write what we know, like what happens in our lives, and things are starting to get a lot more serious than they ever were before."
April's "Rented World," the Menzingers' fourth album, signified a gut check. The previous album, 2012's "On the Impossible Past," received widespread critical acclaim no member expected. So when it came time to record the follow-up, May said, it was obvious the band (which headlines the Ottobar on Sunday) needed to take another significant step creatively — not to prove anything to critics, but to themselves.
"The last record had a lot more influence from other people. This one, we just went in by ourselves and really didn't speak with anybody," he said. "It was definitely a giant leap. We spent so much more time on this one, worked so much harder and took it a little more seriously."
The dedication paid off, as "Rented World" — which is full of throat-straining rallying cries and outsized choruses — is one of the strongest rock albums released this year. The influence of early garage punks the Replacements looms over the album, while hard-to-forget hooks recall Green Day's mid-'90s "Insomniac" era. And yet the sound is wholly the Menzingers', thanks to clever storytelling and an appealing balance of punk rough edges and slightly polished pop sensibilities.
"The last time [we recorded] we were just — not scared, but nervous," May said. "We didn't really understand how anything worked. This time, we just found ourselves a little more confident."
Released by Epitaph, "Rented World" opens with its strongest song, an instantly catchy modern-day punk anthem with an unprintable title. (A family-friendly version could be called "I Don't Wanna Be a Jerk Anymore.") The title came from a rant by drummer Joe Godino during one practice, and May said it was impossible not to relate.
"It's definitely something I found myself thinking many Sunday mornings," he said.
The single is also a call to arms against selfishness, and wanting to be a better person, which are running themes throughout the album. Self-improvement was on May's mind while writing the album, and it was still there during our conversation.
"To be caught in the 'I-don't-give-a-[expletive]' aspect of your early 20s is dangerous and not good," said May, who shares singing duties with guitarist Greg Barnett. "Hopefully that's what they take from [the album] and it makes them feel better about themselves."
Sunday's Ottobar show marks the end of the band's 31-date summer run, the Menzingers' biggest tour to date. Venues are no longer the raucous house parties where the band, which also includes bassist Eric Keen, performed, and May said that can be a good thing.
"House venues are more like a party setting. People aren't necessarily there to see live music," May said. "So when we're playing at a bigger place where people are actually paying to get in and are really excited, it's an event for them."
The Menzingers perform Sunday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Remington. Lemuria, Pup and Cayetana will also perform. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.