Three years ago, on the first listen, I was entirely certain that Tears of the Valedictorian was the best album of the year. I’d been a longtime Carey Mercer fan, but Tears surpassed all of my expectations. His frenetic barks and yelps counterpointed the chugging guitars, thumping drums and flowing keys. Not just exciting musically, the lyrics were evocative, sharp and the songwriting cyclical, brilliant. And Paul’s Tomb is the product of that same mind, with three more years worth of literary study and sonic crafting.
Some may find Frog Eyes most notable for having given the world Spencer Krug. Krug, now of Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, Sunset Rubdown and Moonface (whew), has amassed an outstanding back catalog, but it all started with Frog Eyes. I don’t want to overstate Mercer’s influence, but Krug broke his teeth with and certainly is influenced by Mercer’s songwriting skills. Basically, I’m trying to argue that anyone who claims to love Krug needs to visit with Mercer too, this record specifically.
Paul’s Tomb encapsulates all of Mercer’s best talents and stews them together. Where Mercer followers like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and Krug revel in layered eccentricities, Mercer gets to the raw core, no matter how dense the material. It’s telling and noticeable that a good deal of this album was recorded live, the vocals howling and archaic, the voice that could be no one but Mercer. Album opener “A Flower in a Glove” sits at a hefty nine minutes, at first clamoring for a close listen to the obscure, challenging lyrics. “That’s you in a casket”, Mercer groans as wife/drummer Melanie Campbell patiently lies in the backgrounded, drubbing out a simple, understated rhythm. The driving crush of the second half is unmatched, the drumming even more precise and addled, Mercer maniacally grinning and quipping. “Did you ever think of a bad idea?” he half-shouts, half-admits. This sort of line is trademark Mercer, the man at his best. He’s willing to admit that he has bad ideas, but it also shows he’s capable of turning bad ideas into brilliant pieces of music.
The triumphant, clanging “The Sensitive Girls” follows, the melody counterpointed by simple stabs of slightly dissonant guitar. The repeated “You don’t need Cassandra to gaze over the edge” is intensely tragic, considering the Greek myth in which Cassandra is capable of seeing the tragedies of the future but completely unable to stop them. Mercer often toys with the idea of insanity, which “the edge” here seems to be. It’s something within reach at all times, and you don’t need a prophet to know that.
“Rebel Horns” was one of two tracks on the album that Mercer and co. had been playing live a few years ago, and the studio recording takes the already great track and compounds the greatness. The stuttered melodic opening is highly reminiscent of Mercer’s tracks on the first Swan Lake album, the bass slinky and insistent, the guitars frantic and unflinching. “Lear, In The Park” and the accompanying “Lear in Love” find Mercer back in the allusive mode. The first part, “In the Park”, is a sweet, chilly instrumental, while the second half references the “bear hunter’s wife” and “morticians” with a repeated croon of “she’s alright” which seems to be an attempt at self-reassurance as much as anything.
“Violent Psalms” is fairly different from past Frog Eyes material, but not too far from former Mercer solo projects Blackout Beach and Blue Pine. New member, backing vocalist Megan Boddy echoes Mercer’s low, quiet croon as Campbell slowly, quietly taps at a low-tuned drum and a squiggling synth line counters Mercer. The piece is fairly similar to one of the best Mercer compositions, “Claxxon’s Lament”: the music simple, low, the lyrics quiet, evocative and vaguely tragic. Here we get repetitions of “Paul is alive”, but its immediately chased by “the great debaser”, a seeming harbinger of life’s doom.
The eight minutes of “Paul’s Tomb” that close the album are epic, grandly unclear, and unsettled. There’s too much emotion in Mercer’s voice to determine the lyrics more often than not. The guitars are overarching and dramatic, the drums thunderous and the keys clambering. The final thirty seconds of the record are a wall of breaking insanity, Mercer’s quavering, limber howl demanding full attention. Paul’s Tomb is easily on par with the excellent Tears of the Valedictorian. It might not have a single track as good as “Bushels,” but it may be a bit more well rounded in its entirety. As much as I’d tried not to have used the obvious line, this record truly is a triumph.