Carey Mercer has always seemed more like a shaman than a songwriter. He sings incantations, not songs, and his voice doesn’t sound like anything that would emerge from an ordinary human being. It’s a slippery, shapeshifting thing that bubbles forth like it’s actively trying to crawl out of his body, wriggling this way and that and imbuing his already spiky art-rock compositions with a buzz of nervous energy.
The fact that this warbly, elemental croak is still intact at all is something of a miracle. Just prior to the release of the last Frog Eyes album, 2013’s Carey’s Cold Spring, Mercer was diagnosed with throat cancer. As he told Noisey, four of the tracks on the band’s new album Pickpocket’s Locket were completed right before he underwent radiation therapy, while the remaining six were recorded following the treatment. Mercer is an eternally cryptic lyricist, so it’s hard to tell how much he’s directly addressing the situation, but songs like “Death’s Ship” and “Crystal Blip” — “You’re a crystal blip on a TV screen / There for a second then you fade” — seem telling.
If anything, though, Mercer’s voice sounds more confident than ever. In fact, the whole record is brimming with life, teeming with activity — and rather than the usual anxious twitchiness, it’s something calmer and more triumphant. Mercer wrote all 10 songs on an acoustic guitar that his dad left him in his will, enlisting old friend Spencer Krug to write string parts and recruiting a number of collaborators (including his wife) to add pedal steel guitar, upright bass, piano, and drums. As a result, the album exudes an almost rootsy acoustic warmth — it’s easily his most approachable work to date, and you could even call it a folk album if it weren’t still so weird.
After dealing with the death of his father and his own health issues, Mercer just seems happy to be alive and making music with his friends and loved ones, and even when the subject matter is dark, that sense of joy is there. We’ve already heard the jazzy opener “Two Girls (One For Heaven And The Other One For Rome)” and the tumbling word-stream of lead single “Joe With The Jam,” and now you can hear the rest below.
Pickpocket’s Locket is out 8/28 via Paper Bag Records. You can pre-order it in physical form here and receive a cassette of demos and alternate takes for free, or pre-order it digitally here and download “Joe With The Jam” instantly.