The headlines read: “Frog Eyes Call It Quits, Announce Final Album and Farewell Tour.”
Listen to this: It is not surprising, or even alarming, that lead-singer Carey Mercer has elected to put the Frog Eyes band to rest. Their form is at odds with the moment — his thrashing and howling no longer our reprieve from steady economic growth, the measured business speak of board rooms, the leftist turning to the international news section of the New York Times to find the grisly violence of imperialism. Back then, music was our crisis and Mercer its messenger — the scorching guitars of Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph a dash of white light:
Put your hand on my face, row away from the grief-stricken man
Put your trust in my fate, I shall track that abrasive wasteland:
We are richer in love, but you know: You just can’t have it
The entire album a modernist triumph before the sun set on realism entirely — when we still read novels, when words hadn’t yet been replaced by characters, when sweeping gestures still triggered heartbreak, where nuance and time were not yet lost. Truly an era when an obscure indie rock band could write a nine-minute song and assume that the world would listen.
It always felt like Frog Eyes were one step ahead — if not, how did Mercer ever convince himself to sing with the urgency that he does? He consistently runs ahead of the music, beckoning the listener to follow. Just around this corner, he tell us, there’s intoxication and quiet and a steady drumbeat to howl over. The violence of collapse is coming but it’s not here yet. Well, now it is.
I remember downloading a leaked copy of Frog Eyes’ 2007 masterpiece, Tears of the Valedictorian. Around 20 years old and somewhere into my second year at UC Davis, I lived in a three-bedroom apartment split among five roommates. A drum set teetered menacingly in the living room. Controller cords were always snaking onto the coffee table. Privacy was usually conceptual but, on this night, I had my shared bedroom to myself. With a young man’s nervous energy, I decided that the best plan was to sit down on the carpeted floor and listen to “Bushels,” the volume set just a notch below triggering the neighbors, the lights turned off, my eyes watching the stereo equalizer climb and fall with the music in the dark.
Oh when he stumbled to his wares
Oh when he stumbled to his wares
And then I was surrounded. Mercer was spitting and howling over a staccato piano riff that stumbled with lockstep frenzy—an army marching off a precipice — until it drifted away and left us with only Mercer and a simple drumbeat.
And though he had lots, lots to do
He pulled the flies off of their wings
The storm-eye calm foreshadowing the horizon’s instrumental climax: a wall of swirling, distorted guitars, pounding drums, and pointed, cascading piano. I sat there on the floor and cried but I didn’t know why. Complete despair, total euphoria. The band had delivered on their promise to disorient whatever sense I had of what mattered: my studies, my girlfriend, my friends and family, my relationship to art, it all teetered with a stomach-dropping satisfaction. The musical equivalent of a cliff dive.
Frog Eyes never quite fit in with their Canadian contemporaries. They never attempted to match the layered, muscular rock anthems of Wolf Parade. Arcade Fire’s forlorn evening paeans on Funeral were too basic. Even Destroyer’s espresso-laced, baroque chronicles didn’t match Mercer’s evil energy despite being similarly prosaic. Mercer drifted along in the background — obscure but known in the right circles — content to exist as the favorite band of 20 people rather than the occasional artist to 20,000.
The one exception came in 2006 when Mercer joined Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer) to form the rarest of bands — an obscure indie supergroup named Swan Lake. While their first release was the swampy, shit-production of Beast Moans, the 2009 LP Enemy Mine showcased the power of Mercer’s vision. Opener “Spanish Gold, 2044” is a lurching epic supported by Krug’s stoutly distorted bass line. At the climax, a staircase bass riff and piano thunder while Mercer sings at the top of his lungs:
Oh, the rain’s got to fall
Oh, the rain’s got to fall
Krug and Bejar are relegated to vocal mercenaries, attempting to keep pace with Mercer’s larger-than-life proclamations. The choice is no choice at all — Mercer will draw our attention to the pending flood, yell at it, berate it, but with the knowledge that the flood always wins.
On July 3, 2018, Frog Eyes played their last show in Los Angeles on their goodbye tour to a modest crowd of 50 fans, including the aforementioned die-hards. One listener recorded 40 minutes of the show on his iPhone. Another cried out for rare tracks while nearly blackout drunk. Mercer engaged them all. A gentle ribbing here, a thank you there. It felt like the happiest funeral — let us put this to rest, it was good while it lasted. Whatever it really means, surely Mercer will continue to write and release music under his solo-project Blackout Beach or some unknown-to-us new outlet.
To close the show, the band played the first song they ever released followed by their newest song, a distance of seventeen years separating the two — just about the length from birth to adulthood.
My fanaticism towards the band has at times felt like a bildungsroman with Mercer as a musical father-figure of sorts. I felt like he was trying to show us how to take the feeling of distant collapse and mold it into something beautiful: the rain on the horizon, the firing squad, the stolen laughter, the wheat in a blockade, the savage detectives, a cancer settling in our home, the rich preying on the weak and the old, the tears of the valedictorian.
But the end is official now. No more idle songs. Goodbye, Frog Eyes. You were my favorite singer and you sang in my home.