The record opens with a repetitive thumping, like some primitive dance beat mouthed onto the waiting surface of a microphone, before we hear the guitar, shimmering and beautiful, a fragile and repeating series of notes cascading off the walls in an echo chamber. Voices drone and murmur low in the background. “I think there was men before me who were too scrambled by Donna’s awesome, awesome power,” a man laments, his voice confident and bordering on the theatrical. “But did any of them ever fly? And by fly I mean dipping out … into the indentations and the golden crescents of the sky?” The song progresses — the man’s voice joined by a second, even more theatrical, of his own design — before the guitar shifts and the song suddenly expands. “Decelerate! Decelerate!” he moans. “The aeroplane is diving out of gold.”
Skin of Evil, out on Soft Abuse Jan. 20, is a breathtaking, mesmerizing record, a lyrical song cycle about love and loss, affection and anger and alienation. In 30 short minutes, Blackout Beach – the “nom de guerre” of Vancouver’s Carey Mercer, on loan from Frog Eyes – creates a musical universe with a densely constructed language all its own, meshing a theatrical, often-campy vocal delivery with gothic-rock atmospherics and lots of them. The record, to be sure, will only unveil its treasures to the right set of ears but that almost seems beyond the point for someone willing to listen. In short, this is a gem.
Mercer, who appears herein almost universally alone, builds Skin of Evil around a woman named Donna and, though he invokes that name regularly throughout the record’s 10 songs, her presence is more urgent for what she sometimes represents. This is a theme record. She is often gone, but she is never gone.
In “Nineteen, One God, One Dull Star” — which features a somewhat traditional piano progression, synths, and backing vocals from Carolyn Mark and Megan Boddy — Donna is an object of longing, something Mercer remembers as keeping him above the tide. In “The Whistle,” whose biting nature is offset (or supplemented) by the grungy rumble of an electric guitar, she is a woman who has distanced herself from Mercer’s affections. Her current love becomes an object of scorn. “William, her boyfriend, feeling her up, so tacky, so she groans,” Mercer sings. “So I laugh. An old friend, but fucking William I want to crack his neck and perform one million castrations with his bones. No, I won’t. No, I won’t. No, I won’t.”
In “Three Men Drown in the River,” Donna sleeps on a riverbank as men, presumably lovers, drown, a poisonous symbol. In the closing “Astoria, Menthol Lite, Hilltop, Wave of Evil 1982,” she leaves behind a cracked cassette tape and Mercer just can’t summon the strength to burn it.
The clear passion in Mercer’s lyrics is matched by the aesthetics of the sound he builds around them – textured guitars, occasional percussion, the interjection of a piano. His voice, always high in the mix, falls somewhere between Bowie and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and it is an incredible vehicle for material that pulses with the stuff of life. But the sound also is worth lauding – the Dead Man guitar scruff of “Three Men Drown In The River,” the trippy reverb of “The Roman,” the vocal swooning and swaying guitars of the abbreviated “Woe to the Minds of Soft Men.” Occasionally, these sounds fall together into something conventional – the acoustic verses of “Sophia, Donna, I was Down the River Waiting,” for example – but, more often than not, they are heartbeats and spare soundings that accompany Mercer’s voice.
“Astoria, Menthol Lite, Hilltop, Wave of Evil 1982,” which closes the record, begins with a rumination about feeling like an ocean town stuck in winter and ends, like many songs, lamenting the absence of Donna. The closing might be the most typically beautiful segment of the record – skittering electric guitars and acoustic guitars dance above a piano reprise in the last two minutes or so – but it’s Mercer’s words that will burn into your memory. “She wanted to sail away to some other cape, some other town, some other series of towns that suck the little highway into the ground,” he sings, his voice building. “But that was not alright with the dawn. That was not alright with the dawn.” He ends the record wailing. And Donna is still gone.