Frog Eyes

Carey's Cold Spring

(Self-released; 2013)

By Conrad Amenta | 4 October 2013

I’ve been writing for CMG for about eight years, and I think that Carey Mercer is as close as a musician gets to uniting the diverse tastes of the Glow community. That may sound a little self-legitimizing—“he’s good because we like him”—but I think when and where the phenomenon of instant consensus occurs, especially in a critical circle, it’s worth mulling.

Every year there’s an album that seems the result of planetary alignment, which receives praise across otherwise raucous demographics, but it’s usually some sort of populist tract or melodic powerhouse that’ll do it. The doubters often concede their points, maybe because they don’t want to be ostracized, maybe because they don’t want to miss out on an honest-to-god cultural event. It’ll end up album of the year, or at least top five, on all but the most contrarian of websites. Stories will run in culture mags linking said albums to tangentially-related pop cultural trends and current events. We’re none of us immune; Kanye West is definitely A Thing, even if sometimes I don’t understand.

But why do Frog Eyes have that same sort of effect on the microcosm of CMG’s culture? Outside of variations on length (the songs are shorter), production values (the songs are clearer and drums louder), and lyrical themes (we’ll get to that), Frog Eyes make the same noisy indie rock in which they’ve specialized since about 2002. Their albums, though receiving universal respect, have rarely cracked the walls of stylized, “band-of-the-moment” cool which pervade most year-end lists. But without fail, every new album in which Mercer is involved, be it Frog Eyes or Blackout Beach or Swan Lake, is an opportunity for the Glow to line up behind him, without reservation. It’s as if unequivocal enjoyment of noisy art rock were the most natural and easy thing in the world.

It’s simplistic of me to suggest this, maybe even a little romantic, but I think that honest songwriting can sometimes transcend temporary allegiances to emerging trends. You don’t have to like noisy guitar; you need only to have some blood in your veins to recognize passion when you hear it. Your lizard brain triggers. This primal sound is equal parts and interdependently savage and beautiful. Even before the message is processed and the analysis can begin, you hear the tenor of the voice, the propulsion of the arrangement, and you understand the urgency.

That’s why I’m talking as much about CMG as I am about Frog Eyes so far. The record, in the end, is only an artifact, tossed our way like a stone into a pond. It’s when you see the ripples that you start to feel that something is happening here. There’s the flash; something, you feel, has changed.

Mercer sings, as he so often does, in symbols that are elemental and long lasting (of roses in sand, of rolling waves, of lightning) and pairs them with distinctly modern vignettes (his invocation of a teeming hospital parking lot swims immediately to mind). He addresses death, and the reaper, repeatedly, as if it were a person. On the Bandcamp page for this self-released album, Mercer writes: “I can’t be beholden to anyone but that ‘spirit force’ within me that demands a constant production of music. I’ve got to get the music out quicker, and being the owner of my music allows me to do this. Songs turn toxic within you if you leave them in there too long.” It’s as if Mercer’s is music striving to become nature, as unchained as any guttural, animalistic thing inside us, eloquent and articulate in its way, always relevant and universal in its aspect—music as a matter of survival. This is music that simply has to exist, simply must get out lest it stagnates, is overthought, turns against its writer. Music as Frankenstein’s monster, The Modern Prometheus. Mercer writes music the way a housecat hunts birds and insects: in fits and spurts of uncontainable instinct, despite a long line of domesticity.

Ultimately, Mercer has only done here what he seems always to strive to do, which is create an unflinching, uncompromising piece of art, and that’s enough to recover, a little bit, the notion of giving oneself wholly and unreservedly and without embarrassment to the experience of art. Carey Mercer’s music rises above the excess, the desensitization, and the cynicism of cool that keeps us from developing empathy with the writer, with our fellow audience members, with critics. Carey’s Cold Spring reinvests some portion of me in the notion that music has meaning, and utility, and can makes things better.

Holy shit, this is just a record though, right? And if this record was a one-off, a random fleck of paint from a uniform wall, then maybe I’d admit to overdoing it. But I said pretty much the same thing about Mercer’s songwriting in my review of his 2011 album as Blackout Beach, Fuck Death. In that review, I wrote:

“I feel as if I should have one year-end list for the records that resonated in accidental, arbitrary ways, and another, parallel list, which contains only Fuck Death, those Strauss and Stravinsky records I bought for a dollar, and the Laughing Stock reissue. […] Mercer has followed up Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph (2010), perhaps one of the most affective rock records in years (or at least since the last Frog Eyes album), with something which could be read as the excess that didn’t fit in that outfit’s skin, but is more like the distillation of a horror that lies at the center of our misanthropic culture.”

Mercer isn’t totally alone in being this special kind of musician. Majical Cloudz’s Impersonator is also an honest, uncompromising piece of art that holds up after the 10,000th listen. Spencer Krug writes in similarly poetic and symbolic arcs. Neko Case’s new album is heartbreaking and wonderful. But I feel like these artists, who stare unflinchingly at subjects like mortality and how to be a good person, are rarer than they should be for what is essentially a confessional art form. Maybe writing honest and cathartic music is an extraordinarily difficult to do. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s all around me, unheeded because of my preference for indie rock and ambient noise. Assessing authenticity is a sticky thing. I believe that at the center of even the most cynical media campaign is a kernel of artistic passion and a true appreciation by at least that artist’s fans, but I can count the number of albums on one hand in which that passion is not only obvious, but the objective of the project itself.

I hope I’m not making it sound like what is also, simply, an excellent rock ‘n’ roll record must be enjoyed through such abstract lenses. Please keep in mind that everything I’ve pointed out thus far is on top of the album being produced and sequenced beautifully; performed brilliantly; and the result of Mercer’s ability to divine yet more intuitive chord progressions and inimitable tones from the limited parameters of a guitar. Even if this review is only so much dross, a Frog Eyes review should always be an occasion for lovers of the instrument to get excited. Mercer can pull what sound like banshees from the thing, like he’s plugging his guitar into the battery of himself.

There’s a crucial difference between Carey’s Cold Spring and Mercer’s earlier work. Where mortality and transcendence seemed to be held at arm’s length in the past—less subjects, almost, than objects, to be admired and studied but not necessarily experienced—Carey’s Cold Spring finds itself on the other side of catharsis. Its lyrics are often optimistic and encouraging. Songs like “Don’t Give Up on Your Dreams” suggest overcoming hardship and sadness, and it’s all so refreshingly genuine amid the cynicism and sarcasm generally on offer in indie rock. Mercer sounds reserved, though not in a defeatist’s sense. It’s as if he’s earned a newfound perspective.

Though I’m conflicted about doing so, at this point I feel I have to acknowledge that Mercer has throat cancer. I suppose it’s public information—I learned about it on his Bandcamp page. But I want very badly to avoid making novelty of a disease, or to impersonalize something so personal. This isn’t something that should just be “oh, huh”-interesting in the way that a music review strives to be. But I am writing about a piece of art here, and artists often write about things like the unavoidable fact of death’s existence in a way that makes that fact a little less awful to bear. And this is a songwriter in particular whose discography can be viewed as a series of pieces about war, disease, death, freedom, humor, wickedness, and that dreadful/lovely impulse inside humans to speak and create. Should we be surprised that this same songwriter, fighting cancer, might write a furious, transcendent album about hope?

Should we be surprised that an artist faced with the impermanence of his own artistic gifts will often make sublime art? I’m reminded of John Coltrane’s The Olatunji Concert, from 1963, when Coltrane, dying of liver cancer at forty and having spent the better part of a career trying to capture some infinitesimal aspect of the divine by pushing the boundaries of jazz music, performed in a way that was so free from expectation that it takes the listener almost instantly to the borders of their ability to listen. To say it’s challenging music is a gross understatement. It’s transformative.

I have no intention of writing about Carey Mercer, a man I respect tremendously as an artist, as if he’s dead. But there’s no avoiding the shade of it, that impermanence we all share, drawn down over the record. This is the frontier, not of style, but of spirit, and we have a responsibility as sensitive people who purport to be art lovers to go there, to that border, and see what happens. People have been writing about death since we became self-aware, and yet we’re afraid to praise an artist for writing about death. Mercer is like an astronaut out there in an inkiness we refuse to see though it’s all around us. All it takes is that first step—to listen with as open an ear and mind and heart as you can muster. This machine creates empathy.

It’s taken me too long to say, but be well, Carey.