are times in our lives when, battered by those eternal forces of death, loss
and that old organ grinder known as life itself, it’s probably best to pull
back to a safe place. There we can reflect upon, process and honor our grief by
giving it a voice and letting it express itself in it own words. Sitting in
such a safe place, – like a kitchen, the heart of a home, – is where we can
greet our sorrow with some solitude and invite it in to sit with us at a table
set with tears. There, at the heart of things, we can team up and sing praises
to the depth of our feelings for others, and for ourselves. The songs that
arose from such a session would need to be honored with a name befitting their
depth, a name like Kitchen Hymns.
With the release of his first solo recording, longtime Providence music scene singer-songwriter G.W. Mercure has delivered just such an album, appropriately called Kitchen Hymns. A veteran of the popular Rhode Island roots band, The Benedictions, Mercure has cobbled together a collection of songs that celebrate a rich life with its assorted bucket of memories. Kitchen Hymns is full of songs that acknowledge love, friendship and beauty while dealing with the reality that great loss accompanies great love. Most of us begin to see and really appreciate the richness of life when we mature in our thirties. At just about the same time, we begin to see the signs of decay and decline that comes along with mature growth. This meeting at the crossroads of Joy Street and Rue Road is where Mercure’s songs reside. And while such weighty topics are not, perhaps, dance club rave-up material, they are weighty tomes coupled with satisfying tunes that will elicit a deep emotional response.
The album was recorded, as advertised, in Mercure’s Providence kitchen. As such, there is a hushed, intimate production to the songs that is reminiscent of early Iron and Wine records. Accompanied, save for a handful of songs, by just acoustic guitar and harmonica, the poetic literacy of Mercure’s work is highlighted in a way his roots-based rock and roll work with The Benedictions was not.
“These were songs that had a certain sparseness, that had an intangible harmonic quality,” says Mercure, a nominee for Best Songwriter of 2012 by Motif Magazine. “They were songs that were somewhat spiritual without letting religion get in the way of their spirituality. Those were selected for their ability, given those qualities, to carry a set of songs in a less sophisticated recording environment [as those utilized with The Benedictions studio works such as American Wasteland.]”
Kitchen Hymn’s first song “The Ashes (Block Island Ferry)” sets the tone and holds up the bar for Mercure’s philosophical meditations upon life and loss. The character in the song is throwing some ashes off of the Block Island Ferry. Although it’s left unstated as to whether or not the collections of ashes left “to whip in the wind” ever include any actual human remains, it is clear that he is letting go of things that have burned out. Fire, like time, changes things. An object combusted has its molecular structure irrevocably altered into ashes, just like our hearts – our loves, hopes and dreams – are reduced by time and circumstance into compressed memories. It’s an affecting song with a simple, tuneful melody that’s paired with enough sonic scaffolding to hold its solemn emotions:
You smoked your cigarettes right down to their ends,
Like the letters I burned rather than send.
Sonnets, psalms and haiku, all secrets you already knew,
Things that were a little too true. I kept them until I got weary
Then I threw their ashes off of the Block Island Ferry.
There are more ashes arisen from more sources in the song, and while the organic origin of all of them may only be hinted at, the meaning is clear: the jaws of life will sink their teeth into you, but as long as you can extricate yourself with some degree of grace and understanding of lessons learned, you can go on even while carrying some teeth marks on your soul.
Mercure acknowledges that the themes of death and loss run through Kitchen Hymns. “At the time I was writing them, I dealt with some loss, some awareness of mortality,” he says. “It became impossible to ignore this theme when my mother passed away just as I had finished mixing the album. That very much changed all the songs for me.”
The hope for an artist in any medium is that his or her expressed experience – their spawn – is relatable. We all see things through our own looking glass, but we all share the same species of experience even if the projected internal image is different. When Bob Dylan sings: “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine,” he’s probably envisioning a tenement basement in Greenwich Village; while I am envisioning a suburban basement in Waterbury, CT. Different basement, but I know what the medicine being mixed is. Mercure sees his song performing a similar function. “The ideal, and I try not to be married to ideals,” he says, “is that the songs will resonate in ways I haven’t anticipated for me, for anyone who listens to them. That one will bring one’s own experience to the songs, one’s own text.”
In “Ashes” as well as several other songs on Kitchen Hymns, Mercure employs an interesting and intriguing vocal technique that serves to squeeze the most meaning out of a line. He performs this feat by pausing just before the last note of a line, and then leans on the last word. The effect offers a restrained emphasis that works to elicit the most emotion from the song. The dynamic tension drawn out by this vocal restraint serves well the resignation felt by Mercure’s characters.
While all is not doom and gloom on Kitchen Hymns, there is a mature, worldly knowledge being expressed in Mercure’s spare songs. It’s an unpretentious and hard-won recognition that there is passion, beauty and lightness in the world, but those bits of grace have shadows made of heartbreak, scarring and darkness. As with many other songwriters in the folk/country/blues idioms, Mercure knows how to call up the power of myth and heroic characters from our human history in order to tell a story. Such a song is “Samson and Delilah.” Mercure’s Samson has had heart cut out, as well as his hair off, and no longer has the stomach to fight, nor does he have the desire to pretend to Delilah that he is more than he is.
“Guard me while I sleep, find shears or find a blade.
Watch for soldiers from the olive trees, watch for soldiers by the glade,
Watch for them with their weapons, of bronze and even silver,
I told you what you want to know, and now to you I am delivered.”
“O, that’s all over now, now Delilah, I am delivered. It’s all over now, I am washed in the river.
I need not keep making other mothers weep, o, It’s all over now, now I want only to sleep.”
Mercure does harken back to his Benedictions days with an up-tempo blues song of the road called “Missouri” (think of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”, only quicker) that shows off his acoustic guitar chops. As is befitting the theme of the album, the character in “Missouri” is content with the simple wish of returning to some place that speaks to a place called home in order to assuage his broke-down engine, his battered soul.
And yes, Mercure’s characters are all somewhat broken and battered, as is suited to an American folk record.
“I think they’re defiant,” says Mercure of the characters who populate Kitchen Hymns. “I like narratives that are not where they belong when they begin, that travel somewhere during their course. These characters I think plough ahead, as broken as they are, or become broken. Resolution, for me, as the music and the lyrics are a unit, is always the business of the chord harmonies. They resolve back to their root notes or don’t, and I tell the story that way. It’s like the films of Ozu as compared to the films of Kurosawa: in Kurosawa’s films the tension is what move will the character make, in Ozu’s films the tension is whether to move at all. The resolution in a song like The Ashes or Heartbreak is Everywhere is granted--this is not experimental or very daring music, I will always resolve to the root note--the tension for me is in whether it will be revealed that there was any point in doing so. So I guess they possess both an awareness of mortality, and have some ennui. As Camus said of the French: ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’ And I like broken people. I can relate to them.”
And with the characters in Mercure’s debut, listeners – any listeners of any experience – will be able to relate to them. They have seen the patches in the fabric of life and may have been roughed up a little bit; but they endure. And with the melodies given us by Mercure, it’s a bonus that you can tap your feet along with them, too.
Kitchen Hymns will be available wherever Mercure will be playing: At the
official release party on 10/12 at The Mediator Stage in Providence, and seven
days later at the Brooklyn Coffee and Tea House in Providence. The digital
version of Kitchen Hymns will be available at gwmercure.bandcamp.com starting