Four weeks ago, Carey Mercer announced that he was planning to release his seventh album as Frog Eyes, his main avenue for 10 years’ worth of self-flagellation and awesome guitar lines, devoid of label backing. To have a Frog Eyes album appear, suddenly, as if willed from the ground via chthonic incantation, wasn’t entirely unexpected. Mercer’s always seemed a bit unstuck in time, like a 14th-century mystic who’s escaped to the future, bringing with him gross, magical tales of a plague-wrecked Europe.
As he was finishing Carey’s Cold Spring, Mercer says, his father died. It was an event that, among other things, informed the inclusion of “Claxxon’s Lament,” a plaintive little masterpiece of fevered strumming and quiet ache. It’s an old song, older than the band, and he played it for his father in hospice 13 years after he wrote it. “Nobody shall die,” Mercer sings, halfway between a croon and some sort of wheedling death throe, and to imagine him serenading someone who no longer has any choice in the matter is, frankly, heartbreaking. Mercer’s guitar throttles itself blind—with grief, or resolve, his riffs both wobbly and prickled, like they, too, are unsure how to handle the weight of such banal tragedy, resorting, simply, to catharsis. Though the lyrics make this song and the others on the album seem unmistakably about his dad, about losing loved ones, or about the pall of death that surrounds us all, Mercer’s been yowping about these spectral, spiritual themes on Frog Eyes albums for the past decade.
Except now his words are doused with finality. Mercer has also revealed that not long after his father passed, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. While he offers some assurance that he’s recovering, even working on another Frog Eyes album, it’s difficult to untangle this kind of news from the tone of the album itself. On the appropriately titled “The Road Is Long,” Mercer, who confesses he doesn’t really know the cause of his cancer, seems to anticipate the meaningless of his body’s microscopic rebellion against itself: “Evil, I want you to know that I know that you have no plan,” he sings calmly.
Mercer’s never been one to hinge his music on such explicit context, so his attaching such personal anecdotes to the album is more functional than anything. As he’s explained, his decision to self-release Carey’s Cold Spring was out of respect to his label, Dead Oceans, rather than a way to circumvent them: Mercer understands what oils the industry machine, and he couldn’t promise he’d be well enough to tour, which means that as far as the marketability of Carey’s Cold Spring is concerned, the music by itself is an incomplete package. Yet, the songs were still there, simmering, festering inside him, and Mercer’s never been one to keep such things to himself. The album is less a collection of nine songs than it is a primeval bloodletting.
In that urgency the album finds transcendence: when, in “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams,” there’s sincerity mixed with panic as Mercer repeats, “down, down, down,” matching an ascending, stomach-churning bass; when “Needle In The Sun” conjures up its titular image, all mewling, gunslinging guitars pointed at the horizon; when “A Duration of Starts and Lines That Form Code” slows, loses its way, and Mercer emerges to count out its meter, his voice a breathless beacon. In these moments the context and method of the album’s delivery pale next to the ecstasy of the guy delivering it.
Mercer has, after all, always been this fervent; the bilious Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph and the torrential fury of Tears of the Valedictorian are lo-fi guitar albums just as crunchy and immediate as this. But now we have a story to pin to his sublime energy, a path through the maelstrom of Mercer’s existential angst. And while a concrete narrative may be a way to make sense out of the shitty luck of an artist who’s spent a decade staring down shitty luck with power and eloquence, the real beauty of Carey’s Cold Spring is that it’s absolutely ravishing without one.