Frog Eyes Violet Psalms

[Paper Bag; 2018]

Styles: last hurrah, sunset rubdown, anxiety ratcheting before a panic attack
Others: Destroyer, Moonface, Swan Lake

I always viewed Frog Eyes through the lens of “Claxxon’s Lament,” a song that existed for years before finally seeing official release by the band on Carey’s Cold Spring. I envisioned Carey Mercer, megaphone-wielding poet of the oppressed, as the “Battle Horse;” Melanie Campbell, drummer and Mercer’s IRL marital partner, as “Sarah, the bride of his old age;” and their son as “Billy, who was born of [Sarah’s] sweet womb.” There’s a reason, I think, that this song lasted, never quite finished, offered by Carey to others (Carolyn Marks, Spencer Krug) for interpretation: it was never quite of its time, the moment never quite right for Carey to fully own it in a finished, proper form; it needed to shift, to morph into something that could be truly inhabited in the end. Or, more precisely, Carey needed to grow, to age, to experience before he could truly embody the song, embody the “Battle Horse.” To ride off into the sunset and leave the equivalent of a lifetime of deeds in the dust of the trail behind him.

Of course, when the time finally came to commit “Claxxon’s Lament” to tape as Frog Eyes, the moment arrived with the heavy thud of news that Carey had throat cancer, a defining event in the saga of the band, and of Carey and Melanie’s life. Thus, Carey’s Cold Spring emerged in 2013 with a starkly autobiographical bent, as suggested by the title, and with it a host of speculation about the future, the meaning of Mercer’s typically twisty and metaphorical lyrics, and the nature of legacy. What did all this experience mean, this longevity, as it teetered on the edge of tragedy? And where could hope shine even a little light among the darkness of fate?

Legacy is all there is now with the announcement that Violet Psalms will be the last record from Frog Eyes. And as much as there’s a little twisting of my own going on here, with me imposing spectacle on hindsight, condensing and reframing the story to suit the narrative, it’s an apt path forward. Focusing on the most dramatic event will provide the most compelling narrative, and I do this in the spirit of Carey Mercer’s music, rife as it is with theater and tension. But he’s past the cancer (thank god), and Violet Psalms doesn’t even constitute a proper follow-up to Carey’s Cold Spring — that honor went to 2015’s Pickpocket’s Locket — so experiences in this rearview are actually further away than I’m making them out to be. But if we’re planting signposts on the timeline of Frog Eyes’ career, then the second most visible marker, next to “the big C” of course, surely warrants its place at the end of the band’s existence.

Experience wizens most people (don’t laugh, I said most), and maybe it’s the prospect of release — release from disease, stagnation, obligation, the empty trappings of youth; release, even, from yourself, your own quirks and demons — that has freshened the outlook of Mercer and his band, given them new perspective to push forward into an unknown future where Frog Eyes no longer functions as an active entity but instead exists merely in the historical record as an inert relic. To them, it seems like a thrilling prospect, even though to us — we who have hung on Carey’s every word since the Blue Pine days — it’s a crushing realization of finitude. I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t about us, this isn’t about me. The terms aren’t mine to dictate.

While it’s hard to reconcile that the end of something can be revitalizing, especially if you’re witnessing it from the outside, the fact that the infinite possibility of future has been stripped away from Frog Eyes is precisely the catalyst that invigorates Carey, Melanie, et al. to throw all caution to the wind this time around. To go for broke. Indeed, the point was to harness the “energy of a debut, the freedom you feel ‘when there’s no expectation that anyone will actually listen.’” So the couple holed up at home and made this thing in their basement, in a place of sublime safety away from studios and engineers and record company fatcats hovering over their shoulders and second-guessing every detail (just kidding, Paper Bag; you all are aces).

And it feels like some crazy Frog Eyes trip that we’re still on here with Violet Psalms, a return to/remaining within form where Carey’s freewheeling guitar and (thankfully) sandblasted and virtuosic voice beam at us from our speakers in triumphant denouement. It was a relief when “Your Boss’s Shirt” dropped a couple of weeks ago, and it felt timely and appropriate, more like something along the lines of a funeral dirge for Crazy Horse (or insert similar act here), like the band set itself up on Neil Young’s chest and wouldn’t let him breathe, than a last hurrah for Frog Eyes. The claustrophobia of all the best Frog Eyes tunes — like you’re in a tiny elevator with Carey and his guitar, and he’s playing and singing right next to you, right in your ear, and you can smell the beer on his breath and he’s staring right at you with those wild eyes, and all you can do is stare straight ahead as the illuminated floor numbers slowly decrease, and maybe you press the “Lobby” button a few times in a desperate attempt to make the elevator descend faster, and you definitely pray that this will end soon (but shoot, you still kind of like it, and golly, it’s not that long a song anyway, maybe you can relax, just a little) — weighs heavily, a cloud of anxiety presaging a panic attack.

You don’t get away with this stuff if there’s an expectation of reaching a wider audience.

Or maybe that attempt to harness that youthful energy is a last gasp into the gaping void of middle age before you. I’m right there with Carey and Melanie, teetering on the edge of it myself, and while energy of any kind is fleeting these days, perhaps it’s the only thing to even hold onto anymore before you’re swallowed up for good, before the inspiration dries up, before the Battle Horse collects and rides into one last violent conflict, cut down as his skills erode. One last massive burst, guitar gripped so tightly that the strings snap and the neck breaks, notes strangled in a chokehold until they spark and fizzle in the night air. Drum patterns sketched and built by onomatopoeic vocalizations, because precision only comes from intricate knowledge gleaned over years of composition. But the piano is replaced by synthesizers for sheer unpredictability, texture, nuance. This interior maelstrom served the band’s sour hearts when one in six children fled in boats, and they tap that well, “squeeze that tube,” one more time.

I keep wanting to read the title as Violent Psalms, but Violet is no less brutal, the color of bruises and welts, psychologically raised from thrashing for so long against the madness of the world and its stupidity, from judging that stupidity, from understanding that you’re also complicit in that stupidity, as Carey himself admitted in our interview conducted by my colleague Ze Pequeno. But Frog Eyes is leaving that behind, the frustrations of their young lives, and moving on, wide-eyed into the shining future. In “Pay for Fire,” perhaps the greatest album closer in the band’s career — well, since “Claxxon’s Lament,” but we’ve been there, and “Bushels” doesn’t exactly “close” Tears of the Valedictorian — we’re told that “We won’t pay relationships, we won’t pay for fire,” an intentionally pointed finger at the establishment, a vile presence imposing itself upon everything, thrusting its throbbing extensions into the minutiae of life until every aspect of our existence is scrutinized like it’s on a microscope slide. But Carey and Melanie and crew reject that, and beneath an arch of shimmering synthesizer, they walk, arm in arm, away and into that perfect sunset so fittingly dreamed of by the Battle Horse. Who would’ve guessed, but for fuck’s sake, Frog Eyes is getting a perfect ending.

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