Carey Mercer sure has a lot of bands. Frog Eyes, Blue Pine, Swan Lake (his supergroup with Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug, who each have many, many bands of their own), Blackout Beach—it could be hard to keep track if it weren’t for the uniquely odd, disjointed pop sensibility he brings to each of his records. Little shards of melody are jumbled, repeated, strung together, mixed around until they no longer resemble any familiar musical progression. He howls, whispers, thunders, rambles and mumbles, lending his experimental compositions the tone of a drugged-out conversation.
On his new release from his side project (or are they all side projects?) Blackout Beach, Skin of Evil, Mercer finds a new restraint. His live shows are largely showcases for his massive voice, and he often steps away from the mic, filling the room with his booming, unamplified a capella baritone; but here he finds a quieter, more haunted mood, invoking the choked-out, swooning cabaret theatricality of a Nick Cave or a Scott Walker being strangled by a silk glove.
Though Skin of Evil might be called a concept album (or, at under 30 minutes, a concept EP)—the record supposedly follows the story of a bewitching beauty named Donna, with one song devoted to each of the eight men she leaves in her wake—the overwhelming feel of the record is atmospheric, not narrative. It’s unusually minimal for Mercer, built around bare, echoing guitar chords that lean heavily on the flange pedal and a quietly ticking and whooshing drum machine. The rest is all eerie ornamentation: off-kilter harmonies, distant chords hammered out on a busted bar-room piano, a few washes of vibrating, buzzing synth.
It’s not an easy listen—Mercer’s pop instincts are suppressed even more than usual, and he dials back the vocal pyrotechnics. No longer splitting the difference between opera singer and carnival barker, he comes off here as a sort of bipolar Springsteen on methadone—strung out, worried, restless, anxious, fidgety, and desperate. And though the album does not exactly demand to be replayed, it does create a captivatingly grim world, somewhere between the Old Testament and a bleakly snow-gray cityscape. Skin of Evil is not unlike Mercer himself—prickly, unfriendly, demanding, but fascinating and compelling just the same.