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?

Frog Eyes
The Canadian band Frog Eyes’ new album is Carey’s Cold Spring.

Photo courtesy Shawn Macdonald/Dead Oceans

There are whole subsets of music dedicated to reassurance and personal motivation. There is gospel music, obviously, and plenty of secular FM-radio power ballads in pop, country, and R&B—what used to be called “MOR,” or “middle of the road.” But that’s not generally what you expect from the likes of the Victoria, B.C., band Frog Eyes.

The group has been led for more than a decade by Carey Mercer, the lesser-known player in the west-coast Canadian cabal of stubborn-oddball art-rockers that also includes his sometime collaborators Dan Bejar (Destroyer, the New Pornographers) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface). In the course of his 13 releases with Frog Eyes and his other main project Blackout Beach, nearly every one better than the one before, Mercer’s perpetrated song titles such as “Time Destroys Its Plan at the Reactionary Table” or “Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old,” and ambitious conceits such as a mini-opera about misogynist violence, Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph. His work is unabashedly intellectual but wildly dynamic, socially conscious and yet painterly and abstract, and not given to easy homilies.

But on the extraordinary new Frog Eyes album, Carey’s Cold Spring, Mercer’s usual ambience of outsize characters, landscapes, verbal outbursts, and torrential guitar and drums is peppered with encouraging words: Don’t, don’t, don’t give up your dreams. Reform for the light. I know that the soul shall rise like a burning shade of light. Your shame shall fall away, all shame shall fall away. Is this love that you’re missing? The world is sick, the world is sad, but what you gonna do—you gotta try to make glad. And nobody shall die, and nobody shall die.

What is up here? A religious conversion? No, nothing so extreme, just the everyday emergencies that erupt and affect everyone—the sorts of forces that seem to cause most adventurous artists, whether they begin in exuberance, sullenness, or defiance, to arc over time toward consolation. Think of the Beatles moving from “Money” to “Here Comes the Sun,” or John Ashbery from the pinging disordered referents of “The Tennis Court Oath” to more elegiac recent poems such as “The New Higher”, or even the progress of a creator as unsettling as Louise Bourgeois between 1974’s “Destruction of the Father” and 1999’s brittle but sheltering “Maman.”

It’s how life goes: The febrile atmosphere of self-definition becomes clouded with happenstance and misted with regret, and all too soon chilled by draughts approaching from the graveyard. Confrontation begins to matter less than reconciliation, which if you’re lucky you won’t take as a defeat. Younger artists make demands, but older ones make offerings. They opt for humility over humiliation, or else they’re prone to curdle into crankdom. (Though that also can have its appeal.)

Artists in the heat of fame sometimes take those turns too fast: Despite its dance-floor flair, Katy Perry’s new album Prism, for example, comes across emotionally as more like Céline Dion than the new Céline Dion album promises to be. At 28, the “Teenage Dream” singer has gone from shooting fireworks out of her bra to beseeching “the grace of God” in the space of one album, clutching at the old pop pledge that it’s gonna be alright in the wake of the mundane trauma of divorce. Or so her audience presumes, at least, given what’s known about her life outside the frame.

And that’s the sticky bit: We listeners use what we’ve gleaned from reportage or rumor to read these narratives into what we hear. A singer who dies young seems in retrospect to have been foreshadowing in every lyric. If it’s been publicized that an artist is in love, freshly married, or a new parent, has broken up with spouse or band or has had a heart attack, is in mourning or is reaching old age—each of these conditions creates an expectation. The question is whether that’s a threat to the creative process, or an opportunity.

You can see the rationale for going into Pynchon-like reclusion, to keep your private life and your art out of one another’s way. On the other hand, perhaps openness with your audience might foster an exchange that gives back more than it sacrifices. That’s the gamble that Carey Mercer has taken, from the title of his album down, with Carey’s Cold Spring. When he posted preview tracks to the music-sharing site Bandcamp last month, he disclosed that it was recorded while his father was dying of cancer, and that shortly after it was finished he was diagnosed with throat cancer himself.

Mercer quickly added that his is “the kind of cancer you fight,” not a death sentence. He then posed for himself the obvious question: Given that he is hardly the celebrity-gossip type—much more an Ashbery than a Katy Perry—why divulge this information and risk cluttering the view of the work? “I suppose,” he wrote, “that, after a decade of making music for what feels like a fairly committed and interested group of listeners, I have grown close to the abstract idea of you, the listener. Therefore: I think it right to share what was going on.”

I think he was also nudging those listeners to a certain approach to this album: to bear in mind that he didn’t know what was going to befall him when he recorded this music, but that it had turned out to be right for the occasion—as if the songs themselves had intuited they would be called upon for consolation, and stood at the ready. Mercer went on to publish a more thorough and moving account of his illness last week, and there again he dealt with that notion of artistic precognition, in a darker sense: He’d come to suspect he had cursed himself by titling a previous record Fuck Death, that he’d taunted the Reaper and was paying the price.

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.

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.