Drawing inspiration from Dante, Shakespeare and the paintings of Brueghel, Frog Eyes’ Carey Mercer has cast himself as a kind of raving academic, gone batty from too much time cooped up in the ivory tower. Most often, he sings of the very building blocks of civilization, from industry and commerce to little birds and houses in the woods. Yes, conspicuously couching one’s work in the classics is an ambitious and professorial stance, but Mercer has always been up to the task; he howls — and pants, whoops, shrieks, barks, et cetera — like a feverish lecturer behind a guitar instead of behind a podium. And while Mercer’s antics, on record and in concert, are impossible to ignore, Frog Eyes has always backed it up musically with a wildly imaginative, deeply dramatic sonic language all its own. But on Tears of the Valedictorian, the band’s fourth album, Frog Eyes rises to a new level, framing Mercer’s ranting in a more expansive and lavish sound.
Beginning with “Idle Songs,” the album seems to pick up with the same spastic thrashing that marked 2004’s The Folded Palm. But from there, the songs spread out into diffuse territory. Mercer’s reverb-soaked vocal line wanders over barely-there guitar strums in the plaintive “The Policy Merchant, the Silver Bay,” and the similarly spare “. . . Eagle Energy” is all acoustic plucks, rattling hand percussion and shimmering guitar runs. “Reform the Countryside” is a manic assault on the senses, driven by drummer Melanie Campbell’s propulsive pounding and circling runs of rickety piano played by Spencer Krug (of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown). And then there are the album’s two epics — “Caravan Breakers” and “Bushels” — which cram all of these modes into constantly shifting, multi-part compositions.
“Bushels,” though, is undoubtedly the album’s masterpiece, calling to mind the dramatic flair, structural nuance and sheer sprawl of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something.” Made up of four sections, the song’s vague narrative progresses, more or less, like a Shakespearian tragedy, culminating in a cathartic middle section. As the band coalesces in a climactic instrumental passage, Mercer wails about impending famine: “London, you’re cold/ But the wheat’s got to last.” His syllables are so twisted in his agonized, stammering delivery that it actually begins to sound like some pre-verbal yawp. Once the music segues into the spaciousness of the next section, Mercer plays defeated, moaning to the crop-killing English winter: “And when am I ever going to feel the sting of your sun?” After repeating the line several times, it dissolves into a series of bird-like hoots and the band launches into one final, triumphant section. At more than nine minutes long, it’s an exhausting listen, but it’s also completely chilling.
Tears of the Valedictorian is an incredibly dense record and may take several passes before you can even begin to peel away its layers. That sense of rigor, though, is what makes it so arresting. Like the literature and art Mercer clearly admires, this is an album that doles out rewards for prolonged scrutiny. After all, music that divulges more melody and inspired playing with each listen — instead of revealing itself to be flimsy, even transparent — is music that’s built to last.