Like a box of chocolates…
The latest LP from The Men, avant-garde experimentalists turned punk rockers, is essentially a cover album. Each song on Mercy (with maybe an exception or two) sounds like it’s already been made by someone else. This is surprising since the band usually steers away from convention, but it’s not necessarily a reason for concern. The War on Drugs echo Mark Knopfler to the point of replication, but the group manages to do it tastefully and soulfully.
What’s different here is that The War on Drugs picks a lane. The Men on Mercy, in contrast, is all over the place. Among other things, it is (1) a rowdy tribute to Mission of Burma, (2) a country-inspired ode to Grateful Dead, and (3) a synthesizer-busting salute to Van Halen. Apparently, The Men have thought about everything except transitions. Could they not decide on which artist to borrow from? Or even which genre? The album may as well have been assembled using the shuffle feature on an iPod.
It’s only possible, and fair, to judge each bit on its own merit. Mercy, for those willing to forgive its tonal detours, has a couple of good songs and some okay ones. Standing out among them all is “Fallin’ Thru,” an unexpectedly fascinating dive into minimalism. Gentle, patient notes from a piano back a defeated chorus: “Can you heal me, baby?/ I did this whole thing for the truth.” The track recalls the late and great Lou Reed, but at least briefly, the band can be heard coming into their own. This spark should have inspired the rest of the record and brought some unity to the project.
Instead, the other songs are self-contained and, for that matter, passable. “Cool Water” is a breezy, bittersweet lullaby a la Richard Thompson, and it joins the ancient canon of ballads about lonely guys drinking whiskey at run-down bars. While it is not an attempt to reinvent the wheel, it’s pleasing to the ear, and it takes just enough time to make a modest, admirable impression.
Compare this with the equally familiar yet overlong “Wading in Dirty Water.” This is The Men’s imitation of the Allman Brothers Band, driven by husky lead guitars and an organ part yanked straight from the Woodstock era. The track’s not exactly bad, but there’s no reason why it should last 10 minutes; the band plays it very safe here, and there’s minimal charm past the first couple of bars.
This album’s issue with continuity has already been brought up, sure, but somebody must explain how “Wading in Dirty Water” pops up alongside a number like “Children All Over the World.” Oh boy, does this song ever pander to the ‘80s. No, it’s not “loosely inspired by the ‘80s” like Tame Impala is. This song couldn’t have sounded more like the ‘80s even if Phil Collins dressed it up in a neon jumpsuit. Is it supposed to rock or get a laugh?
Ultimately, the album is an even split. If only you could take a pair of scissors and cut it down the middle. A closing thought: not many Styx fans listen to Yo La Tengo (and vice versa), but would even the few people who idolize both bands agree that they belong on the same playlist?