Last year, comedian Tig Notaro released Live, an already legendary standup album that chronicled her battle with cancer while also exemplifying the artistic form in which she works. With that performance, Notaro triumphed over the disease, regardless of the eventual outcome (and it’s a double-blessing that she has since been diagnosed cancer-free). Similarly, in the buildup to Carey’s Cold Spring, Frog Eyes frontman Carey Mercer disclosed that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer. What follows is a record not defined by cancer but shaded with a blithe confidence in its face, a frenzied indie rock album full of grit, haunting melodies, and visceral performances. Both albums are tied to mortality, disease, and darkness, but not bound by it, breaking free.
Frog Eyes’ music has always exploded out of Mercer, the man propelled by a combustion engine of raw, noisy indie rock. He himself says as much, on the band’s Bandcamp page, claiming only to be beholden to “that ‘spirit force’ within me that demands a constant production of music.” But the spirit guides Mercer down altered paths here, a warming, campsite fire instead of the violent bonfire beauty. Rather than rabid or concussive, the guitars on Carey’s Cold Spring chime like bells on “Seven Daughters”, and roll in like a shimmering tide on “Your Holiday Treat”. In lieu of sharp cymbal clangs and ferocious thumping bass, Melanie Campbell gingerly snaps at the snare rim on “The Road is Long” and rolls like soft thunder at the toms on “Needle in the Sun”.
While musical differences give some idea, Mercer’s voice and lyrics have always struck the deepest chord. He largely relies on his rich lower register, saving the crackling howls for the margins to emphasize points. And while he’s still looking at the chaos and darkness of the world, there’s something beyond it. While “Don’t Give Up On Your Dreams” spends significant time on crowded hospital parking lots, sighing, and sickness, his voice quaveringly repeats the title. “The world is sick/ the world is sad/ but what you gonna do, you gonna try and make it glad,” he aches on “Seven Daughters”, the simple sentiment buoyed by currents of organ and ringing guitars.
Longtime favorite “Claxxon’s Lament” finally gets the Frog Eyes studio treatment here, a particularly effective choice considering the frame. Mercer wrote this stunning parable 10 years ago, and seemingly saved it until he felt its voice resonate. On the Bandcamp page, he describes singing it to his father on the man’s deathbed, and now Mercer’s been given a dark diagnosis himself. “And nobody shall die,” he calls to the sky, the blanket of guitars wrapped loosely about, the arrangement decidedly brighter than its original Blackout Beach solo version. In the past, the song had ended with a line about having money in his hand. Here, he interpolates the Tears of the Valedictorian‘s “Bushels”, borrowing a heartbreaking lyric from one of his best songs to emphasize his striking ability to be present, to simply be there with the listener: “I was a singer and I sang in your home.”
But Mercer isn’t done. It’s not time for the past tense. Notaro beat cancer with Live, and she’s also recovered physically. Mercer’s achieved the first half with Carey’s Cold Spring. And with this much honesty, courage, and strength, he should get the second half, too.
Essential Tracks: “Claxxon’s Lament”, “Seven Daughters”, and “Don’t Give Up on Your Dreams”