Paul's Tomb: A Triumph
(Dead Oceans; 2010)
By Chet Betz & Dom Sinacola | 8 May 2010
In Paul’s Tomb we dream the dreams of Frog Eyes and we share, trembling, in their nightmares. That is: where once the winding progressions of past Frog Eyes songs were like watching churlish waves and wondering what’s causing them and what will happen—because surely there is something mighty at play and something mighty in store—here we are cast right into that frothing ocean. Or at least so goes the perspective of the newly converted. For those of us who’ve been entrenched in this ongoing saga that is Frog Eyes’ reluctant stagger towards entelechy, Paul’s Tomb acts like anything Carey Mercer tends to create—breathlessly, maddeningly, with a soft, wet heart and a cinderblock head. That is: the intimation of drowning is palpable, is heavy and very real; Frog Eyes, at the crown of which Mercer seems to embody the very essence of his band’s name, is holding onto the listener for dear life. We still may not fully understand, almost ten years since we first began not to understand, but still this music makes sense in the sense that we can’t help but feel this music for how visceral it is and how the unpredictable roll of its crests and dips can only be taken as inevitable and unyielding.
As a guitar record Paul’s Tomb may be, somewhat surprisingly, the best guitar record since, gosh, Pink (2005)? We should probably just put it aside of any Boris record because these guitars aren’t about force so much as persuasion. They’re having an impassioned conversation, a conversation about Mercer’s lyrics, and they are having the only truly insightful conversation on that topic because their language is erudite rock music, their breath is their unique phrasing, and their gestures a fairly dazzling myriad of textures (check about a minute into “Lear in Love” where it sounds like the Walkmen hopped into the studio, spent an hour setting up their instruments, and did a ten-second one-take) as assisted by accomplished producer Daryl Smith. So the low-end’s a little soupy, so what: the adept accompaniment of Melanie Campbell’s drums and Megan Boddy’s keys seem unaware of anything else besides those guitars, the guitars seemingly unaware of anything else besides the clouds boiling out of Mercer’s ears. If there’s a role-switch anywhere it’d be on “Odessa’s War” when the drums are the only ones to follow Mercer into his climax (that’s husband and wife at work), and if there’s an exception that proves the rule it’d be the lite-on-guitar “Violent Psalms,” which sounds almost as if Mercer and a girl are doing a cappella even though they’re totally not. Because without those iconic guitars to frame the picture, Mercer’s chiaroscuro takes up and even overflows the screen.
“Violent Psalms” is also where we’re most clearly introduced to new band addition Boddy, her voice Mercer’s album-long temperance and what might as well be the synthesis of all this record’s women characters. She could be Judith with decapitated head held aloft or Cassandra standing before the Trojan Horse, only slightly comforted in her correctness, or together the distillation of their calm, seething power. More importantly, in some wispy form or another she’s already been Mercer’s Donna, the unobtainable muse of his 2009 solo album, Skin of Evil. It is here that Boddy inhales all the voices that aren’t Mercer’s so as to let out a single, soothing counterpart to everything brash and ragged and crumbling and doubtful in Mercer’s milieu. That “Violent Psalms,” in its spare respite from everything else the album’s been spewing, sounds like a Skin of Evil B-side should make ineffable sense—in the sense that we can’t help but draw circulatory, sprawling skeins from one Mercer track to another.
This is, after all, a Frog Eyes album made of Frog Eyes songs, and Frog Eyes songs are inextricable from their songwriter. As is Mercer’s wont, he’s collected the skeletons of what he’s played with ruthlessly before, the bones mostly cast loosely into the dark so all these old motifs and recycled themes clang about loudly, leaving big, creepy echoes throughout. It’s obvious what he’s doing—at least if, having followed Mercer’s career up to this point, so much about Paul’s Tomb seems deeply familiar. The Donna of “Styled By Dr. Roberts” can only be Mercer’s Donna, who will always be Mercer’s Donna, and if that name isn’t imprinted legibly enough on Mercer’s forehead, “Dr. Roberts” culls a striking line from the previously mentioned solo outing, flips it, and answers the lament he sighed almost a year ago. “I see my life is made of rain,” he once wailed; here he wails back, “I see my life isn’t made of rain,” and whether that’s a good thing or not is lost to the song’s awe-struck conclusion. For it’s not to be taken lightly that the subtitle of this record is “A Triumph,” and there are several moments where Mercer’s narrator(s)—Joyce would be proud—encounter what may be a divine light emanating from Beatrice-like muses. Amidst that resonant slow-mo at the end of “Dr. Roberts” Mercer cries, “And if you love me / you’ll know my heart belongs to the shepherd / who has nursed his lord back from the tombs of a dark Galilee” before boldly jumping right into the idea that the only tangible expression or experience of Christ is to love someone else (later in “Paul’s Tomb” equating anything resembling a crusade with a mockery of faith and in fact threaded into “the misery of Christ”) and he will know who that someone is by the “light streaming off of [her] face,” the once sonorous drums halting before that vision. While ravishing in its simplicity, the moment’s made even more pleasurable by realizing the scope of this emotion Mercer’s launched parabolically from one album to another, incandescent insignia streaking the smoke-filled mid-afternoon. So it’s an earned arbor when on the next song, “Lear in Love,” Mercer repeatedly asserts, “I kissed a girl / she was the only one who seemed to hold on to the shards of light” (as opposed to cherry chapstick). This makes things “all right.” Well, er, at least until “Violent Psalms” carries forth the last down-note of “Lear in Love” into its dirge about depressed silhouettes and oil baths.
On Spinner.com Mercer talks about this record being “liminal” and as one listens to the conflict here between certainty of life and certainty of death it begins to sound a bit like Mercer’s coloring in the void between testaments old and new with a post-Renaissance, post-modern palette and doing so in a way that jolts us around between different viewpoints and settings and maybe even narrative realities like so much Lost season 6. It’s in this whirlpool context that romantic faith and nihilistic doubt are streamed downward together towards a pit leading either to nothingness or some glorious “Cloud of Unknowing.” Thus, from “Violent Psalms” we have “Paul is alive, Paul is alive” (the apostle?) quickly put in check by “on and on, the Great Debaser” (Time?) and then in the very next song a claim is made that Paul is “never gonna break on through.” Can anything conclusive be said about the fact that in the dying moments of “Violent Psalms” we have a synth repeating what sounds like the first line of the melody to “This Is My Father’s World”? Which then in turn only brings us to the wealth of father issues inherent to Mercer’s work, as mentioned in our review of Tears of the Valedictorian (2007), illustrated here in a sovereign love that for one reason or another is made unavailable (“but you know, you just can’t have it”) or pretends that it’s undesired, its all-too-present counterpart the manifestations of an abusive patriarchy. Is God a deadbeat dad or are these particular children just too lost? Are all these muses at the mercy of a corrupt world and a Dark Lord (“a hurter”) who will not fail in destroying them, or will their light somehow persist? It seems the best thing to do is simply let the contradictions render each other blameless, the contrast stark and absolute. And listen to the awesome guitars. Which bring us back to Mercer’s aching howl, carrying with it that tome of sacred protest. The hook digs deeper.
The very accessibility of Mercer’s nostalgia—of his characters and salvos and melodies and voices—is Mercer’s admission that he’s still not quite finished. Which is funny, because Frog Eyes songs have always felt slightly unfinished, like they were let go in their pubescence and told to fight it out in the yard for the last marshmallow. How exciting, Mercer seems to be telling us, to witness this music tussle with itself until it finds a balance, an equilibrium—some sort of stable in-between. In the final, title track the tempo decelerates through a series of brilliant crescendos, bringing us at last to the record’s end, a swell of instruments finishing themselves off much the way Mercer finishes off the hopes of his characters trapped in a savior-less paradigm. You could say it’s a chilling moment but it’d be more apt to say it’s the last violent shudder eked out at the end of the entire album’s long, arduous shiver. But, again, Paul’s Tomb is “a triumph,” right? What Frog Eyes suggests, then, ferociously and unforgettably, is that it does not matter what that triumph is in a hypothetical way. It only matters in what that triumph represents now, the band with their wrists shackled “to that razor-like rim.” This record truly is a triumph, and it allows itself to be an open-ended one because this is how it goes on and on, on and on, matching step with the Great Debaser—hell, waltzing with the motherfucker. Donna is alive.