Most people know Carey Mercer for his intensely energetic voice as Frog Eyes. As that ‘band’ and in his contributions to the group Swan Lake, Mercer carelessly rolled out passionate banter that bent the conventions of melodic songwriting. His free form lyricism bounced around the electric tones and high-paced rhythms of those releases without restraint, and the accompaniment usually matched his pained ramblings. It was convincing enough to energize a legitimate segment of college radio that was wallowing in all forms of frenzied hype bands.
After six years, the basic parts of Mercer’s signature have not changed – challenging allusions, unfinished metaphors, deeply personal explorations – but Skin of Evil does not reach the same peaks of past projects. First of all, the distinctly contemporary sound achieved on Mercer’s Frog Eyes albums is ditched in favor of an indulgence in gothic atmospheres. Echoes and reverb slow down an already tamed delivery and themes of waning and inner conflict permeate the verses. Where songs on The Bloody Hand, or The Golden River dart around with the ferocity of a migraine, Skin of Evil feels unfinished at times. The fragmented songwriting is not as novel as it once was and suggests a different motivation.
If Skin of Evil wasn’t so blatantly avoiding modern context, one could argue that Mercer is merely pining for a time that was simpler, less opaque. But there is too much Classical imagery, too much specificity and not enough perspective. So narrow is the peephole into Mercer’s archaic narrative that any close look blots out the light. His main character, Donna, sustains a running storyline in which she serves as muse to each protagonist’s lament (and there are many), and the one discernible thread embedded in their confessions is the fear of loss.
Mercer’s tenor, however, reflects a more contemporary dilemma, a voice obsessed yet apathetic (apparently the anxieties of Bush’s America have spread to Western Canada). If Frog Eyes posits Mercer as the intelligent non-conformist spewing everything that comes to mind, then Blackout Beach is a concentrated effort to reach someone who will never listen. The same author stands behind these words, but in this instance, you sense Mercer and his characters grappling with the realization that all those nights at the inkwell was time ill spent. If no one is listening, then how does one begin to cope with the need to be heard? Not well, apparently; the mood throughout Skin of Evil is bleak and wrought with acquiescence.
“Three Men Drown in the River,” the third track here, starts off with a verse so strongly composed, it could have appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man:
“Three men drown in the river
Damian, William, and Harold S. Dee
I got the feeling that the rest of the men just wanted to lay
Just fall around each other, and sift through the last dusty specks of the day
But I am evil so I ordered them on”
But that’s it. Mercer quits before he gives the song a chance to succeed. These protagonists seem to be too aware of their dim fate to give more than a cathartic diary entry. And so the narrators’ weaknesses become the songs’ weaknesses; Mercer apparently prefers to sustain verisimilitude at the expense of Skin of Evil’s potential. It’s a bold artistic move that lends itself to the page far more convincingly than it does to the ear.