New York-based duo August Wells’ latest album proves mundaneness liberates madness as much as tragedy or long-term personal hell can. The scenes sang about in frontman Ken Griffin’s vulnerable lyrics and the surreal chamber-pop arrangements deliver the message, with Griffin’s voice that of a stellar “down-on-my-luck” narrator.
Madness is the Mercy introduces listeners to people facing a combination of boredom and being unsettled in early songs. A man who does his work well lost joy and “couldn’t find the will” in ‘Here in the Wild’; ‘Come on in out of that Night’ captures what it’s like when hard-luck people attempt to relax like The Rolling Stones did in Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed; and each verse sang by Griffin foreshadows the derailment of a connection in the sprawling ‘Kate Call Home.’ “The hills breathed in and out like giants sleeping in the dark / Made the grass bend and the dogs bark,” he sings at the latter’s start, following with; “We got it all so very wrong”. The Dublin native formerly of bands like Rollerskate Skinny, Kid Silver and Favourite Sons keeps a resonant tone throughout — regardless of how the dense and well-layered instrumentals could subdue words.
Griffin’s vocals over these arrangements recall of a mix of Tobias Jesso Jr. and Taylor Kirk of Timber Timbre. Like Jesso Jr. did on 2015’s Goon, Griffin bares inner strife over keys in the way of a ‘70s pop-pianist (Elton John, maybe). But the album’s instrumentals feature haunting elements also, and Griffin’s bellows add to the drear how Timber Timbre’s lead singer has.
It’s the ‘being open’ and a sense of mania that make ‘This Man Cries,’ song four, a standout. “I don’t mind waking up on the kitchen floor / Men like me, we kind of think that’s what a kitchen floor is for,” Griffin opens, adding wit too. The song captures the madness of malaise as well as any song in this 11-track collection. The narrator recounts a week where meek introspection changes by the day (at one point “What happens when you’ve been shown everything worth seeing?”), but lack of promise is consistent Monday through Friday. “A life, a life, a life is a terrible thing to waste / It’s a terrible thing to waste,” is how it ends, each repeat of the phrase an effective reminder. And Griffin as an insurance salesman’s son sharing the ails of the working class over Neil Young-esque background vocals in ‘Keep My Matches Dry’ competes as far as stories in sync with Madness is the Mercy’s title.
Also an award of listening, August Wells’ pianist John Rauchenberger spurs the psychedelic pop instrumentals, adding emotive twists sometimes seconds long, too. He plays a few keys that shift between feelings of melancholy and hope in ‘Here in the Wild,’ song one; his notes sound in a backdrop to Griffin’s verses of woodwinds, strings and strums. It’s about there where Tommy (a “good man” who does “his work well”) loses the joy — the first trace of a madness-malaise link on the duo’s exceptional new album.
Madness is the Mercy is out September 9th via FIFA Records.