While many grapple with the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic may have an end-point, many others are realizing that there may never be one, and we may be a mask-on society for years to come. With new variants and vaccine denialism running rampant, even vaccinated individuals are choosing not to visit social gatherings. At the same time, corporations continue to grapple with what “returning to the office” means in the new decade.
Yet quarantines and lockdowns have lead many people to have fewer distractions in their life, developing new routines while reflecting on themselves. Left alone with their thoughts, several people have made breakthrough discoveries about their gender and sexuality, and the United States is reporting more people identifying as LGBTQIA+ than ever before. Artists have tackled long-dormant projects and put out a bevy of new albums, leading to vinyl pressing plants getting overwhelmed with new orders, as touring remains notably scattershot. In short, despite our self-imposed limitations, we humans have been busy.
For guitarist Nate Mercereau, the pandemic meant finding a new kind of solace. While the in-demand studio musician could capably adapt his style to a variety of genres, his 2019 debut solo album Joy Techniques was a unique beast. Engineering his pedals in such a way that his guitar always sounded like a synthesizer, the expansive record explored incredible sonic facets that sounded familiar and new at the same time. It was a record of such cult acclaim that Mercereau even managed to release a deluxe edition of it, recording on pop hits as a day job while getting to work on the instrumental music he likes in the interim.
Yet once lockdown started, he was forced into a new kind of isolated creativity, one that showed him finding release via weekly livestreams every Sunday. Working with improvisations generated by experimentalist Carlos Niño, Mercereau would, week-after-week, add his distinctive guitar sounds to a series of expansive pieces, collecting enough to ultimate whittle down the best bits into a cohesive album. While SUNDAYS is his second full-length proper, he preceded it with the surprise release of July’s Duets | Golden Gate Bridge, in which he quite literally broke out his pedals to create tonal harmonics with the Golden Gate Bridge’s infamous “hum”. Dueting with a bridge is about as isolationist as you can get.
Yet SUNDAYS ultimately works as an expansive mood piece because these improvisations have real muscle behind them. With the drumming of Jamire Williams and the occasional saxophone work of Josh Johnson, SUNDAYS is full of breathing, organic compositions. While the pacing of each song is quiet and deliberate, it’s obvious that the intention is to fill the listener’s headspace with as much emotion as possible, never overwhelming them but still drawing them into a lush soundscape of release, of catharsis, of freedom.
Opener “Shared Reality” sets the mood for the record, with clattering drums, saxophone flutters, clanging synth tones, and Mercereau’s ever-distinct guitar tones slicing through the mix, serving as the breathing lungs at the center of each creation. By and large, the songs have a distinctive ebb and flow but only occasionally reach a crescendo, much as one would expect from an ambient album. The key to SUNDAYS isn’t so much that we are rewarded with climaxes but instead get lost in the gradual buildup. There are occasional grooves to be found, but they are fleeting: digital gossamer that borders on transparent. Instead, the trick to this record is capturing different waves of emotion, finding the heart of the song, and, if we’re lucky enough to have a motif, playing with it until it’s about to wear out its welcome.
The issue with SUNDAYS is that as deeply entrenched as each production is, certain songs know full well how to reach their potential while others peter out. The ten-minute “Truly Loving It” is perhaps the most deliberate showcase of Mercereau’s signature guitar/synth hybrid sound, with the song’s build carefully paced. It does build to an analog avalanche of keypads, drum fills, and clattering sounds of unknown origins, but the release and gorgeous comedown are well worth the journey.
Yet on the opposite end of the SUNDAYS spectrum is “Every Moment Is the First and Last”, a collection of field recordings and digital noise files wherein the key musical motif attacks quite suddenly, jarring the listener in a way the rest of the record does not. It’s a far cry from tracks like “I’ve Got What I Need”, which comes off as the sad synth theme to a modern indie RPG game, taking a mournful theme and stretching it out into every possible pose that makes sense for it. It’s honestly a remarkable composition and one that projects its emotions on a widescreen, making it easy to follow along and unquestionably one of the album highlights.
What made Mercereau’s Joy Techniques such a thrill was not just his stunning attention to texture and sonics but how he wrapped all those unique harmonics into propulsive, intriguing songs. By the very nature of its improvised-then-polished creation, SUNDAYS has a bit more time to wander, occasionally getting lost in its own reflection. Yet, we can’t besmirch a record that radiates this much emotion, capturing the wonder of self-discovery and the sorrow of extended isolation all in one sitting. It is an ambitious instrumental project, and while it’s undoubtedly expansive, the best parts of SUNDAYS border on transcendent. As we spend the start of this pandemic discovering new things about ourselves, Nate Mercereau ended up discovering a whole new side of his sound; we’re just lucky he decided to share it at all.