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Frog Eyes
Pickpocket's Locket Oobah Butler , September 24th, 2015 09:35

For nearly twenty years, Carey Mercer has been penning records under his banner of surrealist romanticism. Whether it's through his main vices Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach, or his two-album collaboration with Spencer Krug (Moonface, Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer, The New Pornographers), the weight and presence felt when Mercer is involved with an album is like none other. He is to alternative music what Beat Takashi is to alternative cinema: it doesn't matter how, if he's involved with a project it becomes dominated and defined by the covertly complex, often-baffling laws of his world.

When he posted the story online that spanned from his most recent Blackout Beach record, 'Blues Trip' into the Frog Eyes album 'Carey's Cold Spring', he told it with flair of comic timing, structure and a flavour of self-deprecating humour. The story encompasses what happened to Mercer when he became obsessed with the phrase "fuck death": singing it aloud, umming and ahhing whether to purchase a mug with the mantra on it; the sudden death of his father and serenading him on his deathbed; riding bicycles, spending time with his family; being diagnosed with throat cancer. This two year long period makes up one of the most compelling and extraordinary stories I've heard. Yet what makes it so unique is that Mercer tells it as if over a glass of wine at his dinner party, wearing a wry smile, eventually bemused when he finds his guests in tears at the punchline.

This new record, Pickpocket's Locket, is almost like hearing somebody trying to speak your mother tongue for the first time. Mercer mentioned in an interview preceding the album that a consequence of his illness was "taking copious amounts of morphine and being exposed to loads of music", and that falling in love with the troubadours of the 70s particularly informed its sound. In the broad strokes of upfront acoustic guitar on 'Joe With The Jam', the flush strings on 'The Demon Runner', or the split between drier vocals and short, natural reverbs for instrumentation: you can hear an essence of those mid-70s' arrangements. That is, if Bowie's Young Americans was dragged backwards through an Abigail Mead soundtrack and blared out in some Southern State forest. Its melodies nervously looking over their shoulders searching for a stalker, the supporting cast of precarious rhythmic motifs jittering and an ominous Spencer Krug-arranged string section a few strides out in front.

Nonetheless, this misalignment should in no way be seen as a failure: there is a quality of conventionality here that you couldn't attribute to another Frog Eyes record. In the past, his moments of conceptual creation like 'American Waltz For The Good Americans' or other pieces from 'The Golden River' have almost felt tongue-in-cheek, but there is an audible commitment to the ghosts of his studying on Pickpocket's Locket. Mercer's long-time collaborator, Bejar recently cited how he "doesn't think [Carey] realises it, but he disregards tradition." And this, the sound of Mercer's attempt to regard tradition, is mesmerising.

With less of that stream of consciousness, vigorous imagery that was so prevalent in his earlier rhetoric, you can detect a shift in lyrical focus. Pieces like 'The Beat Is Down' have a sprinting, interweaving vocal protagonist amongst the most unusual segments of melody, but follow more traditional arcs of storytelling. This doesn't stop them from being intricate and abnormally composed nevertheless: phrases are almost never repeated but echo around your brain as if a spiralling chorus hook. "Your sabbatical is a gift to the sun, take this cover-cloud and wrap it around where you might be stunned. Lightning has a way of striking anyone, who stands in the path of an oil-man." The last line, delivered just once, has a presence that hangs over the record like a guillotine. Mercer is a master of the natural sense of choice viciousness and emphasis.

This is rather a development than outlandish in his world, however, and it is the transpositions to the frontlines of his recent personal traumas that are most jarring. I've never once felt a coldness or detachment listening to Mercer's lyrics; it's always seemed as if he's intimate with every word uttered, just never a victim. Following the brutal intensity of his online 'fuck death' tales, for the first time in his instance we have context, which can be a troublesome thing in art. Deeply personalised, over-contextualised work has a habit of manipulating and somehow undermining what came before it. Take photographer Masahisa Fukase: in the wake of being divorced, he released delicate portraits of the woman he still loved, which made his brutal 'Kill The Pigs' slaughterhouse photobook from years before just seem lightweight. Whilst stories of Mercer's father's death on 'I Ain't Around Much' bleed distress, they flourish not only as the peak of a heart skipping, emotional pedal of the record but feel natural as part of a crescendo in his life's work. It really does speak volumes about the groundswell of depth in his writing that a record with stakes this high don't feel like a step out of character, but rather a continuing stride through a storm.

It is the tempest of 'Rejoiners In A Storm' that is an elegantly subdued, polyhedral portrait of Frog Eyes in 2015. It is a succinct tale, flying the sail of delicate sound and instrumentation, tossed by the waters of conflict at every turn. A conventional piece ultimately commandeered by off-kilter tonality and storytelling alike, it is the closest Mercer gets to crystallising his full ambitions for Pickpocket's Locket in a song.

There are few examples of artists forced to surrender to the seas of change in their lives without clinging onto their previous work as a constant to pull them through. Mercer is one the few. He applies the same pressure to his art as the one that has been on his very being throughout this period. That's what Pickpocket's Locket is: the sound of a man vigorously moulding his music with the same stress he feels on his life force. A man whose reaction to being told he'd soon be undergoing throat surgery that would "seriously impact" his voice was to describe this possibility of a new voice as "a great opportunity". Whilst the surgery wasn't required, Mercer charged on to find that new voice on this record, without escaping himself. If you press play on Tears For The Valedictorian now, you'll hear just how dramatic a development Pickpocket's Locket is and the immovable Mercer at their cores. Quite clearly, his artistic constants are symbiotic with his life force: strong enough to withstand a torrent.