Toward the end of “The Sensitive Girls,” the second track on Frog Eyes’ latest fever dream, Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph,” Carey Mercer screams what is more or less the band’s mission statement: “You don’t need Cassandra to gaze over the edge.” Essentially, he is suggesting that you don’t need a soothsayer forecasting the dark days ahead to get a glimpse over the precipice of sanity. Mercer himself has assumed the role of crank prophet, translating violently hysterical visions into violently hysterical rants. Over the course of five albums, Frog Eyes’ career resembles less the work of a band than the word of a frighteningly lucid schizophrenic with a bone to pick with his inner demons. But whereas their previous albums sometimes threatened to career into obscure oblivion, Paul’s Tomb is a surprisingly clear-eyed stare into the evil that lurks at the edge of their songs.
The album opens with the magnificent roar of “A Flower in a Glove.” The band enters the song full tilt: “You were always unnoticed/You were always the flame that dies/Bastard with a flat-top singing The Cloud of Unknowing.” But instead of letting the song implode under its own noisy weight, the band lets out a little slack, enough that the song can wander. But the song keeps breaking its chains, gnashing and howling like a wild animal. The band reins it back in, trying mightily to keep something so powerful docile. This give and take creates a terrific sense of tension that gets strategically purged a number of times—check out the mid-song crescendo—when the band lets the song rear up on its hind legs. On “Bushels,” the towering centerpiece from 2007’s Tears of the Valedictorian, the band created such a whirlwind of noise that the song tore itself apart before the band carefully rebuilt it into a monumental cathedral of rock ‘n’ roll. Here, though, the band allows the song to disintegrate into a stormy wash of reverbed vocals and echoing feedback.
The band’s willingness to play with the internal structure of their songs because the album’s hallmark. Most songs begin and end in vastly different places, and in that respect Paul’s Tomb marks a considerable shift in the band’s aesthetic. Instead of working in short bursts of fractured punk, the band now creates larger (and, thus, stranger) worlds to explore in a single composition. The brooding “Odetta’s War” reaches its spooky climax in the middle of the song with a circus organ playing between flashes of guitar squall. Likewise, the magnificently tense “Styled by Dr. Roberts” begins with an urgent plea from Mercer: “I’m going to pray for the war/I’m going to pray that my dagger’s not the first blade withheld.” The frantic and wobbly first few minutes creates a structure that the slow fire of the final minutes can burn to the ground in a spectacular blaze. And then there’s “Lear in Love,” a barn-burning, Kafka-quoting Springsteen homage that finds Mercer playing a wild-eyed romantic: “I kissed a girl/She was the only one who seemed to own the shards of light.” The furious bombast that opens the song gives way to sleigh bells accompanying Mercer’s tender reassurances (“She’s all right”) that close the song.
Since the noise the band churns up is always swelling, the quieter moments are a welcome respite from the storm. The fretful “Violent Psalms,” which is reminiscent of Mercer’s creepy side-project Blackout Beach, is a shimmering mirage under a blaring desert sun. But the most conventionally beautiful moment of the album is “Lear, in the Park,” a slim two minute instrumental that sits squarely in the middle of the album, presiding over the chaos all around it.
In the album’s final song, the band allows itself to indulge in everything that makes them so majestically strange. There’s something vaguely ominous, something potently apocalyptic about the song. Mercer comes across here like a demonic Wallace Stevens: inscrutable, intelligent, serious, ancient. Near the end of the song, Mercer starts making demands like a desperate mad-man: “Shackle your wrists to the razor-like rim.” Earlier, Mercer promised that you didn’t need a prophet to lead you to the edge of sanity. No, you can dangle right there yourself, hanging by a mere thread over the blank air between internal chaos and control.
At their best, as they frequently are on Paul’s Tomb (“A Flower in a Glove,” “Paul’s Tomb,” “Lear in Love”), Frog Eyes almost demand to be mythologized. They seem to require an exegesis, a dissertation, a conference of wild-haired scholars sweating at the lectern. The band creates a wicked world populated by witches and dwarves, merchants and military officers. This is a world inhabited by the fantastic and the mundane. Violence flashes like lightning, striking with devastating force. But Mercer and company never forget that you are always on the other side of their songs. They know how to thrill and baffle a listener in equal measure. At the end of “Bushels,” after literally dissolving into chirping gibberish, Mercer composes himself, reminding himself why he’s there: “I was a singer, and I sang in your home!”
Rating: 9 / 10
mp3: A Flower in a Glove