Carey Mercer is a busy man. Aside from releasing five full-length albums and a couple of EPs with his band Frog Eyes over the last seven years, he’s collaborated with fellow Canadian indie rock heroes Dan Bejar (The New Pornographers, Destroyer) and Spencer Krug (Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) on two records as Swan Lake, and even found the time to work on his own solo project, Blackout Beach. One might think Mercer would be spreading himself thin with this amount of creative output, but judging from the dense swirl of sounds on his second solo outing, Skin of Evil, such an assumption would be far from the truth.
Billed as a concept album, the press material for Blackout Beach’s latest touts the record as “remarkable” for these times in that it consistently follows a story for its entire duration. Though to be honest, outside of recurring character names and imagery it’s pretty difficult to piece together exactly what story is being followed. Instead, Skin of Evil seems to revel in relatively formless mystery, both thematically and musically. Mercer’s lyrics detail a cryptic narrative that chronicles loss, frustration, longing, alienation, and more through the meandering thoughts of the mysterious Donna and, more centrally, her former lovers. The story plays out as dense allegory, at times rich in detailed descriptions and at others conveyed in hazy stream-of-consciousness, as though the various narrators were communicating through opaque dream-imagery.
From the opening of “Cloud of Evil” to the album’s chaotic finale, the songs are paced as some sort of dark tide, rising and falling in a continuum of grim psychedelia and looming theatrics. Delivered in hushed whispers, cascading mumbles, or light fits of mania, Mercer’s voice floats within sparse sheets of guitar notes and feedback, laid atop one another against minimalist percussion and haunting crescendos of lurking chants and wails. Like a flowing river, the sounds of Skin of Evil constantly progress, yet maintain a basic, unchanging form for most of the record.
A bit jarring on first listen, this album requires patience. Meditative and hypnotic, its lyrical themes and sonic strengths are only fully revealed on repeated listens. This fact on its own may not necessarily make Skin of Evil an overwhelmingly remarkable album, but its allegiance to the mysterious and the implicit, challenging the listener to unravel its value and meaning, is certainly notable.