A little over two years ago, the beast moaned. That beast was a three-headed Cerberus of Canadian rock called Swan Lake. Now, the beast stirs again, and if the intended foe is the listener, there’s a hint of truth in the title, Enemy Mine. Dan Bejar (Destroyer, The New Pornographers), Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown) and Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) say the album is named after the somewhat goofy sci-fi film with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., but it could just as easily be referencing the inherent inaccessible qualities of the song cycles. The trio’s first go-round was a heavy and artful set of varied era Bowie clones in workaday clothes, and Enemy Mine does hit some of those notes. However, the songs are more slowed down, dourer, and far more challenging. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad album, in fact, far from it, but one that will require some intent on the part of the listener.
Who am I kidding? If you’re a fan of the music from any of these artists, you’re used to left-field lyrics, unintelligible poetry and avant-garde sensibilities. In fact, you probably revel maniacally in dissecting every last obscure reference and trochee. Hell, I do. And yet, I still don’t understand the album cover. Sure, the last one was equally mind-boggling, like a bizarre commingling of Bob Ross and Jim Steranko, but a courtroom painting? The group claims to be the first to do such a thing, but there’s likelihood they’ll also be the last. Once you’re thrown off kilter by the artwork, you’re thrown headlong into the album, introduced by the weirdest and most dramatic head of the Cerberus, if such terms apply, Carey Mercer. On “Spanish Gold, 2044,” Mercer croons like Bowie as vampire over a slow drum chant and fuzzed out bass, his compatriots providing “Oh’s” like backup Motown singers of the damned. I am now beginning to wonder if the Dracula puppet musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall was actually commissioned. I kept expecting Mercer to chant, “Die! Die! Die!…I can’t.”
Each of the three members get three songs that are `theirs’ throughout Enemy Mine, and “Paper Lace” is the first for Spencer Krug, a song decidedly less drastic than its predecessor. In opposition, “Paper Lace” is a bit jaunty, flowery and with lyrics that can be made out, if not understood completely. Krug’s words resonate, though they may not paint a whole picture, “What’s in the world? What’s in the hearts of pretty girls? There’s nothing left inside this room filled with lion skins and laurels.” And suddenly I wonder what T.S. Eliot’s indie rock band would have sounded like. Bejar slows down the pace even more with “Heartswarm,” a gorgeous track that begins with the hilarious opening line, “Do my eyes deceive me? Or is it truly springtime in Paris for that piece of shit?” Cascading pianos and shimmery tambourines backing up Bejar’s wistful voice contribute to a pastoral sense, like a picnic in an E.M. Forster novel.
Krug’s remaining two songs are a welcome contradiction, in the first, “Settle On Your Skin,” his voice is still as jittery as ever, incredibly tense without seeming rushed, like John Lydon trying to cover Sufjan Stevens. In the latter, “A Hand at Dusk,” Krug takes a backseat vocally to Bejar, and the song is far more meditative, even in its lyrics, with such revelatory phrases as, “There’s architecture here.” Indeed. Bejar remains true to his cryptic self-referential style with his remaining two songs, “Ballad of a Swan Lake, Or, Daniel’s Song” and “Spider.” The differences lie in Mercer’s crazed wailings at the heart of the former, and the fuzzed out guitars interrupting the new wave synth fest of the latter. The closing refrain of “They want you” in “Spider” gets garbled with each intonation as to resemble “They won’t chew” or “They wanchoo,” a glaring and gleeful standout for such a literary band. Mercer emerges from the gloomy castles of his opening track in one of the most engaging tracks on the album, “Peace.” The closing seconds alone with the overlapping vocals and Bejar’s chipper calls of “No suicide” are magical. “Warlock Psychologist,” a possible action-figure buddy of the Avalanches’ “Frontier Psychiatrist,” (can you picture that comic book?), finds Mercer at his most `howl at the moon,’ frantic and manic self, and all three chime in for a glorious coda, providing a forceful punctuation mark on a remarkable album.
Though the band claims Enemy Mine is more of a collaborative effort, the distinctive voices and styles of its three members still shine in their individual respective songs. Only backup vocals and a few instrumental flourishes hint at the presence of the other two while the one takes lead. And yet, those differences mean everything. The closing triad of songs finds more of the vocal sparring than the previous tracks, and are easily the most rewarding. I’d say that the lyrical content and the challenging musical phrasing may alienate the casual listener, but I doubt any of these three have `casual’ listeners. Enemy Mine is one of those albums that will give out what you put into it. This Cerberus doesn’t so much guard the gates of Hades as much as it entrances those into thinking there’s no possibility of escape. After getting past the initial absurdities, including that album cover, Swan Lake’s labyrinthian musical catacombs will surely ensnare you.
MP3: “Spanish Gold, 2044”