Carey Mercer is back! Just two years after the glorious art-rock ensemble Frog Eyes dissolved into the ether, Vancouver’s favorite troublemaker surfaces today with company as Soft Plastics, a band/project both sonorous in annunciation and, obviously, provocative in execution. Listeners don’t have to wait long to cue the drooling. On the very first song, “St. Tosh the Actor”, Mercer rolls out that bizarrely affecting, signature croon – part David Bowie, part Stephen Prina, all fused with Baroque-tinged LSD – over shuffling percussion, occasional guitar, addictively juicy bits of synth and even a mature hot-summer-night moan courtesy of J.P. Carter’s trumpet. It’s a careful but welcomingly off-balanced kind of take on new wave music as filtered through benzo-fueled sleep. That’s apropos: 5 Dreams was written, Mercer says, “in the early morning minutes between sleeping and waking.”
Mercer, though, is quick to get down to business, tackling his absence (albeit brief) from recording. It’s revealing, even if it is a statement from his dream-mind. “We watch the light beam / St Tosh cries, “A new scene!” / All hail this new scene / All hail the sunbeam golden and sent from a God / All the players start their praising and chant / “Welcome sunbeam, you shall wake up and plant / Holy seed into a city that slants / Into the shimmering image that it seeks to supplant.”
The theme of the Soft Plastics’ debut is, as the title indicates, dreams, the surreal narrative logic of them, and the wondrous incongruities and disconnects that bridge the conscious and subconscious mind. And it is a feast to follow, track by track, with a lyric sheet. Mercer’s prose is in top form herein. But it’s hard not to read some of the record’s passages as heavily autobiographical, something that greatly buoyed Mercer’s previous work under the name Blackout Beach. If everyone we see in our dreams is being played by our mind, which self do we choose to trust or to reveal?
One can’t help but weigh these questions as you muse about Mercer’s self-effacing lyrical turns: “I’m a poor boy from the siltland / Second singer in my uncle’s band.” There’s also introspection bordering on self-hate: ” Does anyone believe the pure shit that falls naked from my tongue? / A fountain of lies, a catchment of flies / Buzzing along / A doctor might cure this condition of echoing song.” But, this being Mercer, everything isn’t always as it seems and moments of self-doubt coexist alongside flirtations with hubris. “I really want to be the lead actor,” he quips, plainly, at the end of the record-best “Spartacus, Please”.
The issue of authorship aside, sonically speaking, the record is what made late Frog Eyes-era Mercer so grand and so beguiling. It’s nothing if not diversified. There are spots to highlight Dr. Demento reverb guitar and Melanie Campbell’s wonderfully clattering acoustic snare (“Andre”), takes on ’80s-inspired new wave asides (“The Angels” and the aforementioned “Spartacus, Please”, which hints at Talk Talk) and atmosphere-heavy cinematics complete with ’60s pop mechanisms (“I Pay No Heed to the Signs”). There are “Joe With the Jam”-style anthems in “Rope Off the Tigers”, and there’s also the eerily spare spoken-word piece “I Dreamed of Cold Clean Green Seas”. Few zeitgeists are not threaded passionately alongside camels through the needle of Mercer’s sonic vision.
Musically, 5 Dreams is what we’ve come to expect from Mercer’s tasty little brand of madness – and we’ve come to expect quite a lot. As much as I hate to cast the role of music writer as a Freudian analyst, though, the more you apply the details of Mercer’s life – marriage to a collaborator, fatherhood and the recent death of his father, balancing the professional and personal – the richer the offering becomes. “You who would wait inside / You might just be waiting too long,” Mercer offers on the closing song, “Wyld Thyng”. “Don thy apparel and glide / Out like a swan dressed in a song.” Well, 5 Dreams is proof and then some that I’m far from the only one who will welcome back to this beautiful swan with open arms and open ears. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, June 5, 2020