At this point, Carey Mercer is known well enough as a pop eccentric with his work in Frog Eyes and Swan Lake. Even when working in the latter group with the likes of Spencer Krug and Daniel Bejar (both plenty odd in their own right), Mercer still comes from way out of left field. But it’s his undersold work as Blackout Beach that shows Mercer at both his strangest and most exciting. His side project’s last record, Skin of Evil, was a troubling, roiling, but endlessly fascinating pop record. And now he’s followed it up with the larger sounding Fuck Death.
The approach is not far removed from Krug’s latest work as Moonface. Where Krug dealt in layers of organs and little else, Fuck Death is a swirl of three synthesizers, braced with basic drum programming and (very rarely) some ringing guitars. The singular, but deeply layered, approach makes for a tense and strangely claustrophobic sound, even when the record works in negative space. Opener “Beautiful Burning Desire” churns and bristles for six minutes. The keyboards sound like some alien twist on church organs, working through a haunting wobble that clears out into cold, breezy riffs when Mercer starts his breathy singing.
Right away, his protagonist is fleeing. He claims he’ll “drink whiskey just to run away,” and that phrase, “run away,” repeats often over the track. Mercer has claimed this is a record about “Beauty and War,” but as wide-open as that sounds, Fuck Death is a bit of a paradox in that it discusses exploring through desertion, that perhaps running away is the only way to figure out what’s going on. With this in mind, the music moves from noisy confusion to isolating expanse and back again. There’s moments that feel combative crashing up against moments of extreme alienation. The nearly 13-minute “Drowning Pigs,” for example, has all the experimental space (and fascination with pigs) you’d find in a Pink Floyd song. The faint clatter of percussion in the background maintains a tension under various styles of ambient noise. It’s a song that threatens to form itself and explode but never does. In that way it anchors a record that, despite simple elements, remains unpredictable throughout.
Still, though it is unpredictable and often strange, Fuck Death is still at its best when it shapes itself into something immediate. “Torchlights Banned,” with its glitchy beat and catchy repetition, is the best song here. Mercer’s voice is shadowed beautifully by Megan Boddy (the only other performer here), and the wartime gravitas of the record feels most concrete with the squall of sound shaped into clear melody. The bluesy “Hornet’s Fury Into the Bandit’s Mouth” with its grave guitar work, reminds us what some of the other songs are missing here, since the weight of this makes it feel far stronger and more lasting than the synthesizer groans that surround it. It’s also Mercer’s finest singing on the record. He sticks to a low register on all of the record, leaving behind his trademark banshee howl, and the combination of confession and deathly worry comes out best when the guitar rumbles behind it.
Fuck Death is a fascinating listen, one that can mesmerize often. But in the end, it feels as chaotic as Beauty and War without giving us a clear perspective on either. The limited keyboard approach adds tension to these otherwise dense, trudging compositions, but it also holds them back. If Skin of Evil was troubling, it also had a bracing force behind it. Fuck Death, compelling as it is, never quite finds the same charged feeling of purpose. It both proves that Blackout Beach is Mercer’s finest project, and shows that his finest project should have better things to come.