Frog Eyes have made their last album. 17 years after their teetering debut, the Vancouver band unveils Violet Psalms—a giddy lament; a gnashing jubilee; a rain-drenched allocution on hope vs. horror, paradise vs. pride, Marx and Brexit and bad acid trips.
It's an ending like a beginning. "We were trying to pretend it was our first record," Carey Mercer says. This is their final record, Frog Eyes' last gasp—but the art-rockers wanted to capture the energy of a debut, the freedom you feel "when there's no expectation that anyone will actually listen." They made it at home, burrowing under the house where Mercer lives with drummer Melanie Campbell. The goal was to blot out the world, focusing on what they could grow down there, four musicians in a basement. Could they squeeze out ten songs? Was there enough paste in the tube to squeeze out 10? "In the end there was. Which is rad."
No guests, no engineers. A self-invention. Violet Psalms began with its frantic, reverb-drenched guitar, squiggling over a modulation pedal. Next Mercer and Campbell concocted the drum parts—imagining them as onomatopoeia then recording them in fragments, kickdrum by kickdrum, tom by tom, with tailored effects. "The goal was to disorientate," Mercer explains, but also to work by instinct, gut—a cut-up of music and image, songs that coil back and kiss. The band pruned as they went, adding Terri Upton's bass parts, taking other parts away. Whereas past LPs used piano, Shyla Seller worked with shimmering synths—chords like bleeding watercolour, shadows casting on a wall.
Frog Eyes' music is indebted as ever to Bowie and Byrne, to glam and sheer cacophony. But there's some Cluster and Jon Hassell here too, and a little of Destroyer's Ken—which was being made close-by. The lyrics came last, "wedged in the spaces" after the rest had been recorded; Mercer's like a slapstick Scott Walker, a choleric Nick Cave. "All I want is a sign / all I need is a sign / that I'm sound of mind," he sings on "Don't Sleep Under the Stars". While that track is a meditation on rock'n'roll ("how tired I am of its corpse," Mercer explained, "and that I still love its little finger"), the album often tilts at even taller windmills: barbarism, socialism, late capitalism's death wish. "On A Finely Sown Sleeve" considers the thinking that led to Brexit, or to Trump—working people's hatred for each other, the oozing pathos of our pomposity. "Little Daughters" reflects on what will succeed these events—and whether our kids could save us, if they're taught the right lessons. (Mercer spends most days as a schoolteacher.) On "Itch of Summer Knees," the singer returns to his own childhood, remembering an episode when he was 13 years old, "almost homeless," an interloper at some acidheads' monstrous lakeside party. Here and everywhere, flashes of violence graze moments of reverie—wait for "Pay For Fire", the album's magnificent closer, rhyming hardship into beauty.
Even so, don't come looking for bromides. This band never made—and will never make—a music of big choruses, primary colours. These are torn portraits, unruly canvases—feverish, ludicrous, resplendent songs—each still somehow full of kindness. Violet Psalms is as much about Frog Eyes' friendship as anything else: their time as an adventuring party, chaotic good; the kind that bawls when gigs go wrong; the kind that's made so happy, so daftly happy, by making music. "It feels so cool to create something," Mercer says—a song, an album, 17 years of din. After burrowing in the basement, singing their violent psalms, the band's journey is nearly over. This band was a ring—a ring in eight parts. (This is its final gleam.)