Personal narratives surrounding Frog Eyes’ 2013 album, Carey’s Cold Spring, got as much play as the music itself. Leader Carey Mercer’s father died around the completion of the record, and then the songwriter was diagnosed with and treated for throat cancer immediately after it was finished, causing a self-release of the album and a postponed tour. Mercer maintained that Carey’s Cold Spring was not about his father’s death or his own diagnosis, but the three most notable Frog Eyes releases — 2010’s Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Carey’s Cold Spring, and now Pickpocket’s Locket — are each conceptually different and loaded with affecting content.
Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph is driven by narrative, while Carey’s Cold Spring was deeply personal in the way that it’s impossible to separate “Carey” from the “cold spring.” Pickpocket’s Locket ushers in a new moment for Mercer, each song standing on its own legs under the umbrella of a comprehensive album. Before he died, Mercer’s father left him an acoustic guitar, and Mercer challenged himself to finish writing 10 new songs on the instrument before letting anyone else hear them. The presence of an acoustic guitar, though, isn’t as significant to this album’s crafting as the satiating arrangements borne out of the songwriting process.
Pickpocket’s Locket bursts at the seams with rich instrumentation that hardly feels as if it can be contained by anything but Mercer’s voice, which is largely intact. His wife, Melanie Campbell, returns to the drums for this album after being absent from Carey’s Cold Spring. In addition, there are strings, bass, saxophone, and pedal steel. The incorporation of such an opulent sound is worth noting in relation to the fact that these songs were originally conceived on acoustic guitar and written in solitude.
In the past, Mercer’s songwriting has been enriched by layering and augmenting guitar parts with lyrics. The process for Pickpocket’s Locket is notably different because of how elegantly the arrangements flow in tandem with the lyrics, rather than occurring behind or on top of them. Mercer’s signature vocals and intellect still come through, and this album doesn’t require as close of a read.
“Joe with the Jam” features Campbell’s minimal percussion and strings that are hopeful in tone. Mercer sings the album’s namesake here (“I pick it/ I pocket/ A pickpocket’s locket”), and an atmospheric whir acts as the heartbeat to the track. This lifeline is a common tactic on standouts like “The Beat Is Down (Four Wretched Singers Beyond Any World That You Have Known)” and “The Demon Runner”. Mercer’s speak-singing is most distinctive on “The Beat Is Down”, pedal steel whining and violin weeping behind him. “The Demon Runner” is emphasized with horns, patient strings, and a plucky bass line eventually falling into a deconstructed, dreamlike rendition in the final seconds.
“I Ain’t Around Much” is arguably the most emotive song here in terms of vocals and narrative. Mercer croons and breaks and bends, stretching his voice to the brink as he cyclically grapples with the ideas of having a son, being a son, saying goodbye, and seemingly reconciling with an unclaimed voice: “My voice is everywhere/ My voices go nowhere/ My voice is in the air/ That’s what I wanted to hear.” Strings trace the edges of Mercer’s inflection, perfectly mirroring the bend in the scale he climbs.
Pickpocket’s Locket is an exceptionally cohesive album helped in large part by the instrumentation building on the foundation of Mercer’s lyrics and delivery. The sound is large and sacred, belonging in a cathedral-like space where only the vaulted ceilings could hold its atmosphere. Whether or not the events surrounding Carey’s Cold Spring seeped into the writing and production of this record, Pickpocket’s Locket is an exuberant triumph, exploding in full from the brilliant minds of Mercer and co.
Essential Tracks: “Joe with the Jam”, “The Beat Is Down (Four Wretched Singers Beyond Any World That You Have Known)”, “The Demon Runner”, and “I Ain’t Around Much”