FOLK AND NEW FORMS: FROG EYES RETURN WITH NEW LP “THE BEES”

Despite its etymology, nostalgia has become prelapsarian by nature. The feelings associated with this memory-facing word tend, in the minds of the many, to be those of a softer time where one convinces herself she can still hear the birds that were chirping on that day, or the greenness of the trees, or the smells in the room. Nostalgia is a funny little trick that memory plays on human beings, and has become a means to describe that sort of looking back, with fondness, on things that came before. 

But the origins of nostalgia sing a slightly different song. The Greek nostos and algos–– to return home and pain––take a brief detour through Modern Latin and German to fall on the 18th century nostalgia meaning acute homesickness.  And while this etymological path resembles our relationship to the word nostalgia today, it reveals a sadder, more sinister history of meaning: that the nostalgic subject is melancholic towards things long past, is sick with remembrance in a way that can only be brought forward, through time, and affect her future.  

The Folded Palm album art, Frog Eyes

In April, the beloved Vancouver-based indie-rock band Frog Eyes released their latest LP The Bees. Don’t let their halcyonic nomers fool you, these guys are hardcore. In more ways that one, The Bees is a return; it is an album signposted by revisitations, homecomings, and moments of looking back in order to carry on. In 2018 after Violet Pslams, the band spent a brief run under the name Soft Plastics. But with The Bees, Frog Eyes have reclaimed their original title. “Can you ever really sound like anything but yourselves?” asks lead vocalist and guitarist Carey Mercer.

The simultaneous relationship of turning- back-towards and going- forward-into are constantly at play in The Bees––at first at odds with one another, until they seem to keel out and work harmoniously as the album marches on. Mercer’s vocals are convulsive, writhing and curling around bent and dystopic lyrics––lyrics that crawl back to an earlier time and tap into that truly uncanny, liminal suspension that is your mid-twenties, when responsibility is waking up and all there is to do is beat back against the rising of that tide. 

‘What kind of nostalgia is this?’ the listener wonders; it is not the kind she knows. With The Bees, Frog Eyes adopt a definition of nostalgia more akin to its original, more painful etymology, in order to create an observational, self-reflexive album that deals in memory and revisitiation. 

Frog Eyes, image courtesy of Pitchfork

Immediately, the album’s first track “Rainbow Stew” inaugurates this retroactive movement. One can sense that The Bees is an exploration of the past, a synthesis of what came before, and the celebration––why reinvent?––of Frog Eyes’ signature sound. After thinking through the idea that “novelists and painters are allowed to have eras, periods, bodies of work that find a small bit of psychic space and then, over years and decades, testify to the ecology of that space,” Mercer put pen to paper: “So I wrote songs that take in the view of my past, or explore the little stake I have made over the past twenty years of work: I thought of my past as my future, and it felt a bit radical,” he says.

As “Rainbow Stew” builds feverishly to a crest, title track “The Bees” comes down on the offbeat. A jangly tambourine and drum beat offer a plain canvas upon which Mercer paints a nightmarish dreamscape. Simply composed but ominously worded, Mercer’s lines are delivered with a certain matter of factness that belies the illusory, abstraction of the lyrics themselves. “The Bees” seems to recall a dream that the singer had at thirteen (as the album progresses, we bear witness to an adolescent Mercer, growing up), with lines that cut through the melody in hard, impressionistic form.  The eight-minute track opens up into a cosmic instrumental, creating cavernous space for the rest of the album to fall out of.

“The Bees” lyric video

The lead single follows. “When You Turn on the Light” is what Flood Magazine calls a “domestic, apartment-living inspired song that finds a 21-year-old Mercer walking into his bedroom in the late afternoon, still a bit high off fresco painting fumes from the night before.” The song sees a 21 year-old Mercer in a “hellish umber landscape,” recalling the subliminal underground life of the determinist twenty-something.

Freezing, for a moment, in this special age, “I Was an Oligarch” is a raunchy compliment to “Light,” exploring further the trials and tribulations inherent to being twenty one––those moments of hubris that beget embarrassment for young subjects still finding their footing in this world. These coupled tracks aren’t celebratory of youth, nor are they wanton yearnings for the good old days, but neither are they negative or cursory. Instead, Frog Eyes remains observational in their nostalgia, still keenly aware of the low moments of the past. In key player Shylla Stellar’s own words, “in a way that acknowledges these glorious and embarrassing and fleeting moments as part of who you are today.”  

“When You Turn on the Light” lyric video

Falling just past halfway on The Bees is “Scottish Wine,” where the minor-key spells for which Frog Eyes is known are on full display. In many ways, “Scottish Wine” is a later intermission song––a look back at the album thus far.

These are such sad songs

But why would I write such sad sad songs

Because the memory or the grief or the sunset hits me

And yet its angle is wrong

And so I am compelled to write such sad sad songs.

“Scottish Wine,” Frog Eyes

These lyrics are self-reflexive, insofar as they are aware of themselves as lyrics and their place as such within a larger album. In quite an interesting way, “Scottish Wine” is like a prism, akin to the ones you’d play with as a kid. Frog Eyes holds up a little glass triangle to the past, to the songs already played, and lets that refraction take stock, assess, and lead the listener into the final three tracks.

“Here is a Place to Stop” and “Everything Dies” bring The Bees to a rolling stop. “Here,” building for three minutes on the back of a classic rock guitar and Mercer’s clear vocals (more digestible than on previous tracks), is more a denoumount than a final word.  “Everything Dies,” however, lives up to its name and offers listeners a definitive end. Mercer is spooky on this track, fielding a vocal performance that somehow evokes Alice in Wonderland meets the great vastness of the Wild West. 

Frog Eyes, photo credit: Soloman Chiniquay

The Bees is an album hard-fought, constantly pushing back against the definite nature of a past long-gone; and while it reminds us that the light eventually flickers out, it also encourages us to fight against the dying of that light. Enjoy the rind, Frog Eyes concludes, “everything dies and everything goes.” 

And so, in the end, the Greeks might agree with me that The Bees is a properly nostalgic  album from Frog Eyes. A band who has overcome its own revision and returned again to where it began––with the keen eye of memory that sharpens only with age. The Bees features a perfect balance of story-building musical shorts and longer, more psychedelic, feverish instrumental trances. In utterly unique fashion, Frog Eyes calls out for a new era of folk and carries on those little oral manifestos that can, in time, come to define a genre. 

Don’t wait, give The Bees a listen.

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