The Earth Pushed Back, the debut full-length from Baltimore natives Have Mercy, is at once counterintuitive and conventional, in a very specific and effective way. The channeled rawness and dynamic maturity that permeate the record belie that this is a very young band, in most every sense of the term. However, this being an emo record—and an unabashed one at that—the wiry energy and heart-on-sleeve lyricism provides a counterweight, one in firm keeping with a fine tradition of similar artists past. Bands like Thursday and Further Seems Forever spring easily to mind, genre heavyweights that they were. But then, so do pop-punkier acts like Taking Back Sunday and Silverstein. For the former, the association is tied, at least in this reviewer’s mind, more to the emerging-fully-formed musical expertise and emotional honesty on display than anything else (and hopefully this link doesn’t fate Have Mercy to as disappointing a subsequent catalogue). As for Silverstein, well, that band’s always been an under-sung contributor to the field, especially at the unpolished bookends of its career thus far, and Have Mercy wear that same roughness well. (Plus, more superficially, the hand-drawn artwork for Earth seems a thematic, if likely unintentional, echo of the melancholy cover image of When Broken is Easily Fixed, so style points abound.)
All of this comparison is not meant to diminish the originality or deride the talent that Have Mercy so plainly display. In fact, if there’s one distinguisher even from its most obvious generic forebears, it’s that the quartet has no qualms exploring the softer side of the sonic spectrum. The back-half of Earth, especially tracks like “Cigarettes and Old Perfume” and “The Living Dead” (which actually adds piano and female vocals to the mix), adopt an almost indie/alternative vibe, albeit one punctuated by quite a few more gravelly howls than you’re likely to ever hear on an album—or discography—of Ben Gibbard or Sam Beam. But Have Mercy certainly shy neither from cranking things up, and the trade-off between mellowness and wall-of-sound distortion, both on internal song and whole album scales, is key to what works here: It's what makes “Weak at the Knees” sing (with a rasp, of course), as well as what bolsters the build-ups of the relatively straight-forward “Hell” and “Let’s Talk About Your Hair.” In fact, the latter song may just be the album’s high water mark, so perfectly does it encapsulate all of the band’s strengths: milking greatness out of uncomplicated—and thus, unshowy—musicianship, and plumbing authentic pathos out of lyrics that skirt mawkishness without ever quite succumbing. After all, at first glance and sans context, “Hair”s title seems vapid—and only once the song’s tapestry of storytelling reveals it to be purposefully so does it transcend the easy stigma of over-sentiment.
The same could be said for the whole album—which suffers no shortage of flaws, but frequently manages to refashion them into strengths of their own sort. The argument can and likely will be made that the songs generally offer no real innovation of substance—hence the litany of easy musical comparisons (another of which is the vocal work of Blink-182's Tom DeLonge, which is slight, but hard to un-hear, so you’re welcome for that). Meanwhile, the (mostly) post-breakup bent of the lyrics can be labeled too easy and familiar. But the labels themselves are too easy. It’s difficult to fault the band for wearing such greatly formative (and just plain great) influences on its sleeve, just as it is to fault an emo songwriter for being too emotive. Either would be more insincere in suppression, and make no mistake, what grounds everything in orbit here is the core of entwined rawness and realness, which shines through in every shout, every mercurial musical punctuation mark, and most of all, maybe, the enveloping, authentic sense of slice-of-life wistfulness in the words—never more palpable than on closer “When I Sleep.” On it, the refrain repeats, “And we, we were not that bad,” with qualified nostalgia and possibly even self-delusion underlying every word; from another angle, though, the phrase “not that bad” is the precise opposite—overmodest understatement, blanketing all-out devastation. Either way, it all sounds real, without an ounce of artifice, which is why the latter reading is also a great description for a band as young, promising, and powerful as Have Mercy.
The Earth Pushed Back is available in physical format for $9.99 from both local merchant The Sound Garden in Fells Point and national retailer Best Buy. The band comes to The Metro Gallery on November 7, along with Weatherbox, Resotrations, and Invitational.