We should probably start with “Claxxon’s Lament,” because I have a feeling it’s going to be the most-discussed song on Carey’s Cold Spring, a typically devastating and hopeful offering from Carey Mercer’s Frog Eyes. Although before we get there, we should probably quickly mention the circumstances surrounding it, including Carey’s father’s passing, his sense of “deep fear” and “paranoia” permeating the record’s three-year composition, and the fact that after he finalized mixing Carey’s Cold Spring, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. About the latter, he says: “I am supposed to get better. I have the kind of cancer you fight.” You should read the full “liner notes” here on the bandcamp page.
I have to admit, when the record was announced and I read through the circumstances surrounding its recording and release, I literally welled up with tears, and that was before I’d even heard a note of music (well, that’s not entirely true – I have a long history with “Claxxon’s Lament” so I at least knew what I was getting into, in a sense). It’s just this – I’ve heard a lot of music over the years, and there are very few artists that I’ve felt have really pushed the boundaries of their craft to allow real emotion and beauty and transcendence permeate their work. Carey Mercer is on that short list. I’ve hung on his every word since The Golden River (circling back to The Bloody Hand of course), and, to pinpoint a specific characteristic of this record’s perception, I was heartbroken by the fact that this man with such a unique vocal gift found that gift under such horrific attack. Even after reading his deadpan “I am optimistic about touring in 2014, but I can’t be concrete,” I was still overcome. Perhaps it was Carey’s bio photo on his bandcamp page, where he’s walking hand-in-hand with his son on the rocks by the sea, that did it – I’m a dad with a young boy, the best thing in the world. The thought of being in a state of weakness around him or being unable to care for him in any way is as inconceivable as anything. Inconceivable as Carey Mercer not being able to sing. So perhaps the idea of touring felt so unbelievably secondary to me that it didn’t register as something hopeful at first.
It’s taken me a while to get to “Claxxon’s Lament,” and the rest of the album, even though I promised it up front – lots of heady stuff to get through first, and I apologize for that. I’ve allowed myself to get personally attached to Frog Eyes’ music. It’s easy to do. The knotty narratives and remarkable delivery of the band’s records always promise hours of parsing, both musically and lyrically, and “Claxxon’s Lament,” for some reason, has held the most mystery, intrigue, and probably hits me harder—even though its lyrics are somewhat ambiguous and there isn’t, in terms of sheer volume, a lot of words—than most songs, even most Frog Eyes songs. But the big themes of family and loss are palpable in their abstract connotations, and it’s the understatedness of these themes and the dirge-like delivery – heavy! – that keep me coming back. And through the years, through the iterations of the song, the meaning has shifted as lyrics, altered every time in some way, large or small, by the ever-editorial Carey – emerge or disappear.
It’s that chorus, that hook, “Nobody will die,” repeated over minor and major chords alike, that’s so simple and so profound, each repetition injected with more and more desperation, because, of course, everybody will die. It’s a chorus filled with hope and futility, and a realization that life must be lived anyway. The ending of the chorus has changed upon its subsequent recordings, lending a different sense of finality to the story of the Battle Horse, Sarah, Billy, Lord, the Father, and the Beggar – and the Waitress, if you go back far enough. (“I was a waitress, but then I just died” – so weirdly and defiantly final!) And that’s where it starts, Carey and Carolyn Marks’ duet, where they intone, “Nobody can die, not till I’ve got money in my hands,” suggesting an outlaw or warrior getting paid to carry out mafia-like “hits” or something. It’s a strange reading of the song, and this version is the version that’s most unlike the others, as portions of the verses completely disappear from later iterations, all mention of the Waitress included. Wolf Parade, fronted on this occasion by Spencer Krug, covered the song before Frog Eyes or Blackout Beach even properly released it in any way, and here it’s, “Nobody will die, well I’ve got money in my hand,” suggesting someone with the power of life and death is feeling benevolent because of his payday. Carey released a haunting version of it on a Blackout Beach 7-inch, and it’s the Krug-sung couplet that appears: “Nobody will die, well I’ve got money in my hand.” Frog Eyes’ version is even more funereal, even though it’s the first time the song is truly fleshed out by a full band, but it’s back to the original sentiment of, “Nobody shall die, till I’ve got money in my hands.”
As interesting as it is to try reading the song in different ways, it always comes back to family, hardship, and eventually death. The Battle Horse is introduced in such a way as to suggest exactly who he is and what is important – he is a warrior (deduced from his “name”), a husband (“he embraced Sarah, the bride of his old age”), and a father (“Sarah hugged Billy, who was born of her sweet womb”), as is Carey Mercer (the “warrior” manifest in this particular moment fights cancer). The telling of “Claxxon’s Lament” is epic in its understatedness, as grand themes emerge from very little, a great accomplishment for a songwriter of any stripe. And it is eminently graspable by those exposed to it, as I have and been so affected. And whatever version is heard, whether the song lasts three minutes or five, the release of emotion at the end is wholly gratifying but decidedly draining. In fact, there isn’t a version that doesn’t feel truly exhausted or weary, or even black of mood – there’s a sense of great tragedy just passed, and deep personal change for all who have lived through it. Maybe it’s added here at the end of Carey’s Cold Spring because of its finality – it is, especially and imporantly, the last song Mercer sung to his father in hospice.
Although this sounds like it may be a review of “Claxxon’s Lament,” it almost certainly is not. I was struck more by the latter part of the album upon first listen, and I’m sure I’ll come around to the earlier songs – Frog Eyes albums are always growers, until they become classics. But there are no contemporaries for “Noni’s Got a Taste for the Bright Red Air Jordans,” “A Duration of Starts and Lines That Form Code,” or “Seven Daughers.” No one writes music like this, no one composes so singularly. And that likely is the major cause of my initial dismay. I am infused with a sense of purpose and life when experiencing Frog Eyes’ music. Maybe part of it was I felt like I was saying goodbye to Carey Mercer, an artist I respect and love, if completely from a fan’s perspective. I’m glad I don’t have to, but even that’s 100 percent secondary to the hope and hurt experienced by his family and friends. I guess this review is really not a review at all, but a get-well card of sorts. So, then, Carey, get well, and may you and your family find happiness at the end of dark times.
[Note: After I wrote this, Carey Mercer posted a really moving essay over at The Talkhouse about the events surrounding the release of this album, and the past year or so of his life. It’s a great read, and an essential follow-up if you’ve started here.]
RIYL: Blackout Beach, Moonface, Destroyer