American Music Club - Mercury
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
My new, post-divorce bachelor apartment is located in a rather nice area for walking. And I like to walk around my neighborhood. Maybe it’s a residual from those days when I didn’t have a car and walked everywhere I had to be, or perhaps even a leftover habit from walking my dog all the time, though the ex-wife kept the dog. But I am a short distance from some very nice, very large and very expensive houses, as well as Cleveland’s lovely Edgewater Park, which, as you might guess from the name, features a nice-enough stretch of beachfront and other good areas for stretching one’s legs.
And so, I walk around my neighborhood a fair bit, Walkman strapped to my head, nowhere in particular to go, no time I generally need to be anywhere in particular. My favorite time to go is around dusk, just when the sun is going down over the horizon. Perfect for a pensive reflection on life, or a dark rumination on everything that is wrong with it, as the case may be.
When I dug out Mercury for the first time since its 1993 release, that walk was definitely closer to the latter. I was feeling a deep, bruised black and purple, and on a whim, I chose it from the shelf. I remembered it being sort of dark, and Eitzel’s sandpaper and vodka voice was sure to sound good to me. Misery does love company, after all.
I hit the street and pressed play and my ears were filled with the opener “Gratitude Walks,” literally. The sound was all encompassing, and the cool, crisp night went perfectly with it. And Jesus, that voice. Those words. That sound.
Mercury doesn’t so much bludgeon you over the head with its darkness as much as it draws you in slowly, as if descending into a pool. By the time you’re four tracks in, the crushing “I’m A Mess,” there is no going back. And as the sun set around me and night came to my corner of the world, the album got blacker and more complicated. I took a left on Edgewater Drive instead of a right, anticipating that I’d need the extra time to let it all soak into my pores.
Sometimes, when you’re really down, you have to take as step back and look at things and just laugh to keep from crying, knowing that once you start, you aren’t going to be able to stop. Thankfully, there are such moments of gallows humor in Mercury—some of them are merely song titles, like the epic “What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life.” And then there is the mighty “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” wherein Eitzel channels the spirit of the old smoothie for his own nefarious purposes, and yet is so filled with passion and pain that you really buy his devotion.
It is exceedingly difficult to pull off doom-and-gloom without looking like some clad-in-black gothic cartoon character, or William H. Macy in The Cooler. The trick is to toss some other colors in there, as well. And the rock-solid ensemble musicianship and straightforward production (by Mitchell Froom) let in just enough light to let Eitzel’s darkness contrast but not overwhelm things. A delicate balance, one that they never quite got right again to my ears.
Turning down West Boulevard onto Lake Avenue, it just starts to rain as the tearjerking closer, “Will You Find Me?” begins and I got home just as the rain started in earnest, barely escaping the downpour and perfectly timed with the last notes of the album. Sometimes the world does cut you a break. Just don’t tell Eitzel. It’ll ruin his day.