Photo Courtesy of Sacred Bones Records
Comprehensive statements have never been the main takeaway from albums by The Men, and none of the Brooklyn rock band’s past seven releases would even come close to being considered “conceptual.”
But, instead of using extended narratives to hold records together, the band has developed a tendency to cluster songs that build upon each other to elevate stretches of its albums. And on the band’s eighth full-length, Mercy, The Men employs its clustering technique to masterful effect.
At its base, Mercy is a country rock album led by a lovelorn narrator and populated by barn-burning prairie rockers and towering guitar solos. It improves upon the country music flavors from The Men’s third LP, Open Your Heart, while continuing to refine the band’s noise rock roots into more structured and accessible pop-adjacent songwriting. Even before the opening notes play, the band hints at Mercy’s musical contents with its cover art of a sunset in nature, a departure from the band’s past covers that featured neon signs, urban darkness and psychedelic designs.
The Men opens the album with a cluster of two country blues songs both centered around the image of water. The opener, “Cool Water,” unrelated to the Marty Robbins song, contrasts the loneliness of “hot nights” with the absolving comfort of “cool water” over wistful acoustic guitar and lush keys. It immediately introduces a level of craftsmanship on this record that never fades away throughout its 35-minute runtime. The following song and counterpart to “Cool Water” is a bluesy, 10 minute epic called “Wading in Dirty Water” that raises the musical and emotional stakes.
“Wading in Dirty Water” is built around an arresting melody carried over from “Cool Water” and amplified by an electric guitar and roomy drums. Where the presence of water represents relief on the first track, it becomes complicated on the second, representing a muck the narrator must navigate through in the aftermath of a failed relationship. In the lyrics, lead vocalist Nick Chiericozzi reflects on the past, singing, “I could not give you my heart/I’m not messing around.”
After a grief-soaked guitar solo cuts through the song’s clean, sparse mix, the band closes out the song with a jam that evokes the careful musicianship of a jazz piece. The jam is all the more impressive considering much of Mercy was recorded live with minimal overdubs. So, although the sound of “Wading in Dirty Water” is far removed from the New York City punk sound, the band’s creative approach still feels intact, allowing the song to fit comfortably into The Men’s discography but different enough to make it a standout addition.
Unlike most of the album, Mercy’s lead single, “Children All Over the World,” is deceptively void of any country rock influence. Instead, it’s a groovy dance-rock outlier that’s got crisp drums, poppy keyboard flourishes and a fuzzy bass synth. Although many of the songs written by The Men feel like solipsistic entries in a private journal, “Children All Over the World” takes a more encouraging and universal tone. But, right before the song gets too optimistic, a screaming guitar solo completely obliterates the pop rock vibe. At times, the lyrics of this song can be hard to decipher, which is a shame given the outstanding poetry found elsewhere on Mercy such as on the song “Fallin’ Thru.”
“Fallin’ Thru” is a dark, despairing ballad and is the most notable stylistic digression on this record, resembling a Leonard Cohen-esque dirge. Following the grandiose jamming of “Wading in Dirty Water,” the record shrinks down to a single voice over a somber piano and features some of the album’s best poetry such as the illustrative line “black mountain caress the purple sky with its late evening riches.” Though “Fallin’ Thru” uses one of the sparsest and soul-bearing arrangements The Men have ever released, the strength of the studio recording requires no extra musical accompaniment.
Like the opening two tracks of Mercy, the final three tracks also form a sort of country rock cluster. The songs “Call the Dr.” and “Breeze” both center around a narrator who is on the run, whether escaping the law or something more personal. The former is a fingerpicked country tune detailing the story of an outlaw rambler who takes his “share of the money” to “settle down easy.” Naturally, something out of order happens to the narrator, hence the title of the song and the final refrain.
“Breeze,” the album’s shortest track, recalls the dense noisiness of the band’s earlier records while echoing an outlaw theme of being “in the breeze.” It’s definitely a treat for longtime listeners of the band and expands on the dangerous lifestyle that “Call the Dr.” introduces. Listeners get the sense that the narrator is in full getaway-mode evoked by the track’s urgent guitars and frantic vocals. “Breeze” is a quick rush of escapism and the thrashiest Mercy gets.
Wrapping up the album’s second cluster, the final song, “Mercy,” is a drumless resignation that features quiet acoustic guitar and sparse piano notes. The song’s narrator wrestles with mortality like characters in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, asking for “mercy at the hour of my death.” And, it’s fitting that a record with so much heartache and longing ends on the question, “did you ever really care for me?”
A pleasant step forward in The Men’s genre-noncompliant evolution, Mercy channels all of the epic emotions of a western film: love, danger, escape, longing, freedom and redemption. Punctuated by powerful guitar work, movingly imagistic lyrics and a pair of song clusters that transcend track lengths, Mercy stands tall over the band’s last two albums, exhibiting a creative high water mark for the band’s current lineup and The Men’s legacy as a whole.