How a Father’s Death, and a Fight With Cancer, Changed the Sound of a Stubborn Art-Rock Oddball

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 24 2013 11:47 PM

Listening Between the Lines

How much of musicians' lives should we read into their songs? How much of their lives should they put into them?

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Perhaps it’s not surprising that a singer who’s always seemed to channel extraterrestrial and subterranean voices would begin to worry that he’d missed the warnings between the echoes, that his poetry had made something happen. In a review of Frog Eyes’ 2007 album The Tears of the Valedictorian, I suggested that Mercer’s churning river of babble ranks him among the rock front men who play the part of the unhinged traveling-show preacher, what Greil Marcus has called the “crank prophet.” But prophecy, as everyone since Tiresias and Cassandra has known, is blind and dangerous.

And so on Carey’s Cold Spring, Mercer seems to have done all he could to pare his visions to a clean view of the present horizon, to climb down from the omniscient third-person to the fallible first. While he hasn’t altogether given up his flirtations with nature spirits and armies that clash by night, he gives much more space to the specifics of the here and now, both private and public. He makes pleas to ailing fathers and loiters in empty hospital parking lots. He goes downtown to the shops and gnaws on the dried-out core of consumer consolation (“Noni’s Got a Taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans”). He even lingers over the Occupy movement in songs like “The Country Child” (“We’re gonna riot in the streets today/ Smash an apple on the face of the state/ Fundamentally opposed to the cut of your clothes”) and “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams” (“Black Bloc Rita hates your automobile … Black Bloc Rita wants to borrow your automobile”).

Musically he replaces the usual Frog Eyes rubber-hurricane drumming of his wife Melanie Campbell with the almost militarily precise snare of Matt Skillings, and reins in his own guitar spasms to more scalpel-like incisions. And most of all he moderates his vocal convulsions to a more confidential murmur and cry, still overflowing with things to say but in no mood to throw his words away. The effect is in no way overcautious. Rather it is the sound of a witness with legs planted firmly on the eroding plain, in no uncertain terms here to testify.

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He is saying what he has to say and going where he has to go, and there’s an underlying certainty in his tone that he will find his fellows there, and that’s where the comfort and the hope lie—the common calm out of common calamity, the significance wrung from the misfortune of mortality. The final track, a reworking of an older song called “Claxxon’s Lament,” is a parable about a contest between death and money that becomes both a protest and an enchanting requiem. It seems almost to issue from the record’s own afterlife, to take place in a land beyond promise but not out of reach.

In fact, I might counsel the uninitiated to begin there and to listen to the album in reverse order—rather than fret about where Mercer is headed, find out first, and then repack the mystery. Then listen to it unspool forward. Then return perhaps to a few favorite moments before starting back at the top. If you respond as I do, you’ll find yourself craving it, for the pain and for its pacifications, and when Mercer sings his final lines— “I was a singer and I sang in your home”—you’ll agree this voice has earned that place, its claim on where you live.

There may be better records this year, but there are few I’d be so loath to do without, because Mercer has made the record he needed to make, and when it comes down to it, what we need is not so different, him and you and Katy Perry and I. It’s gonna be alright. And nobody shall die. A cold spring will be made summer again.

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.