[29 October 2013]
Ed Kowalczyk is still on board the train. He still makes music with this mantra in mind: “Take the personal struggle and amplify it to epic levels, take spiritual confusion/redemption/acceptance and sing it to the rafters, accompanied by equally grandiose productions.” The overall style doesn’t sound stale. It actually sounds more authentic at this point. On the final Live album with Kowalczyk as lead singer, Songs from Black Mountain, the schism between what the band wanted to do and what was on Kowalczyk’s mind was growing wider. It started to show on the earlier disc Birds of Pray, but even as it showed there, they managed to recover from any stumbles they may have had post Throwing Copper.
As a solo artist, Kowalczyk’s wide-eyed spiritual explorations sound less constrained by the band he once led. This freedom is a blessing and a curse. Just as many believed Blur lost their way in the early 2000s after Graham Coxon left and there was no filter for Damon Albarn’s ideas, a similar problem surfaces on The Flood and the Mercy. Ed Kowalczyk is talented, but within the confines of Live there was more of a filter, more of a sounding board for what was a good idea and what was not. On his own, that filter is gone, and the absence of that is palpable on many a song on this disc.
A strong point of this disc is apparent from opener “The One”. While later Live albums tried too hard to get experimental while simultaneously trying to keep pieces of their classic grunge sound intact (and sometimes sounding downright awful because of it) this fusion approach is abandoned in favor of a classic grunge-pop sound. Lyrically “The One” is a different animal than this past track, while musically it recalls “The Dolphin’s Cry”. Live’s commercial fortunes had begun to falter at the time that single came out, but even so people still (more or less) cared about them enough to sustain their career. This fact is certainly not lost on Kowalczyk.
On his solo debut Alive he trafficked in the closest thing to dance pop-grunge he’s ever done with “The Great Beyond”. It was passable, but it sounded strained, perhaps a bit forced. This time around he opts for more straight up early-grunge thumpers when it comes to fast songs. “Parasite” may not be a very uplifting song mood-wise, but it’s a far better choice music-wise. At times the sonics even recall scratches of early ‘90s R.E.M. Given that Peter Buck contributes guitar on this album, it’s no surprise, and these slight touches are faint enough to almost miss them, but they are there.
There are times when his culling from the best of his past leaves him sounding like a man who is starting to run out of ideas. “Holy Water Tears” comes off like a stripped-down, slower copy of Live song “Out to Dry”. Thankfully, this gives way to the energetic and less overtly self-referential “Supernatural Fire”. As much as this track is crackling with energy, what follows, “Bottle of Anything” is floating, awash in repetitive drum machine fills and is one of the rare moments where Kowalczyk strays from the classic grunge template he has used so well all these years. The difference here is this time it sounds natural. It isn’t the forced-sounding sprint of “The Great Beyond” but a reflective tune sprinkled with varying touches of electronica, echoed guitars wrapped in for an ethereal sound – the kind of sound he knows how to do well. It was a sound heard more often on Live’s debut, and not much at all on their work post The Distance to Here. The proceedings are wrapped up neatly with “Cornerstone”, a solid four-minute tune which uses an ages-old “hidden” song trick after a few minutes of silence. The hidden track itself is one of the few moments on this disc that feel most like debut album-vintage Live.
With The Flood and the Mercy, Kowalczyk has also mostly traded one flavor of spiritual musings for another. Unfortunately, his choice makes him less unique than before. It isn’t that his choice here is a bad one, or something to be criticized. It is more disappointing because he began in the world of music by choosing to expose listeners to something off the beaten path, something not that much explored. It is fair to say that most who listened to Live’s debut album Mental Jewelry, and those who later researched its inspiration, had never heard of Jiddu Krishnamurti before. The writings of Krishnamurti, which were cited as inspiration for the lyrics on that album, are part of what makes for a much more interesting body of work. This isn’t just because that work was off the beaten path of what the average music listener knows, it is also because Live knew how to take the themes and wrap them into strong, well-crafted grunge tunes.
Kowalczyk’s change of heart may have come from his feeling like he had written everything he could think of on that which was once his muse, and it was time for a change. Change is good, but this particular change has cost him some of the distinctive flavor that once colored his music. What this means for The Flood and the Mercy is that it is a solid effort, but not as intriguing an effort as those that came before.