In 1998, an unassuming young singer-songwriter named Edwin McCain released a jewel of a single that quickly became inescapable, especially if your parents listened to the adult contemporary stations a lot. “I’ll Be” might just be one of the truly quintessential hits of the late ‘90s, in part because of the way McCain combines the big-hearted rock balladry of Aerosmith (remember, this was around the same time Aerosmith unleashed “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” on us) with tinges of country, soul, and even post-grunge in the almost Creed-like way McCain bends his vowels. For good measure, there’s a saxophone that pops up every once in a while for that extra cheese factor.
Over 10 years later, McCain is still recording music, and most of it sounds like a time capsule dug up from his heyday. In some ways, it’s a striking reminder of what’s happened in mainstream pop over the past decade. After all, “I’ll Be” was a song that peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts; compare that to 2010, when the only “rock” song to finish the year in the Top 40 was Train’s “Hey Soul Sister”, which everybody knows doesn’t count. Nobody’s really making this kind of music anymore on the mainstream stage, except the Script, sort of—and Train themselves. So despite the fact that Mercy Bound, the latest from McCain, feels a little anachronistic and a little one-note, it’s a comforting, enjoyable album by a guy you find yourself rooting for.
The album opener and de facto lead single “The Boy Who Cried Love” is the type of song that probably would’ve been a modest hit 15 years ago, injected with a bit of post-Jason Mraz rapid-fire lyricism. McCain’s voice sounds loose and natural, like the producer had the good sense to just step back from the soundboard and let him rip. That mood pervades Mercy Bound, for better or for worse, and sometimes the studio work verges on the amateurish, but most of the time it gives McCain’s music a warm, intimate atmosphere.
McCain is at his best when he channels the rootsiness of singer-songwriters like Bonnie Raitt and Keb’ Mo’. The former’s influence shows up on “Better Story to Tell”, which recalls “Something to Talk About” in both its sound and its gossip-oriented central metaphor. He’s less convincing but still in his element on the album’s slower acoustic material. On “Uncharted”, he and songwriting partner Maia Sharp swap paeans to their home states over a pair of acoustic guitars.
What prevents Mercy Bound from achieving a higher echelon is the sense you get that McCain isn’t always singing his own story. It’s hard to listen to “The Boy Who Cried Love”, a song that’s all about moving past callow infatuation, and then adjust to the weathered grit of the title song that immediately follows it. “Sober”, which wasn’t written by McCain, turns on a really terrible Gavin Degraw-ish chorus: “Sorry I’m a little sober / In the morning I’ll be nursing and cursing my clarity hangover”. There are other moments that mar the album, like the clumsy lyrics of “Millhouse Girl” (“You call this smolder / But it’s smother”; rhyming “cheater” with “depleter”), but these are forgivable. Maia Sharp’s talents as a songwriter are estimable, for sure, but it’s difficult to buy McCain entirely when much of the music feels like it’s meant for someone else.
That said, if you’re looking for a trip down memory lane, or if you’re a fan of McCain’s work over the last decade, Mercy Bound won’t disappoint. McCain’s voice is as sterling as ever, even if there’s nothing here as memorable or soaring as his late-‘90s hits. And considering that the earnest, likable brand of rock balladry McCain’s crafting is practically niche now, however absurd that statement may have seemed in 1998, Mercy Bound is something like the only game in town.