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'Mercy' is Active Child's full length follow up to his critically acclaimed 2011 debut, 'You Are All I See'. Active Child's (Pat Grossi) most recent release, 2013 'Rapor' EP featured Ellie Goulding and Mikki Ekko. Mercy showcases Grossi's raw, honest, and incredible vocals like never before through his most mature song writing to date.
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And so, it was with great anticipation that I queued up the Pandora Premiere's pre-release that was announced on the Active Child Facebook page a week before the album was set to officially drop. I listened to "Mercy" and was for the first few spins around its 10 tracks.... well, I was underwhelmed. It was immediately evident that this album is not fundamentally different than what came before - the harp is blissfully there, often front and center (much more so than on the Rapor EP in fact), Pat's voice is soaring to higher pitches than ever, there is a lovely instrumental interlude in the mix, there are sexy grooves interspersed, and the lyrics remain very grounded in love and its wonders, failings, and challenges - but this album at first seemed to lack oomph and energy. There is a tension in many of his previous songs, a sense that a little is withheld, an emotional borderline walked. This delicious edginess, a big part of what I've loved about Active Child's previous offerings, seemed absent in this new album. I was also puzzled - especially at first - by several tracks that sounded downright 80's in inspiration and styling, which jolted me out of the flow the first time through.
Having listened to the album repeatedly and with growing enthusiasm in the weeks since though, the moments of 80s-ish styling are the only (mild) caveat I have remaining with the album. All the rest fell into place when I moved from speakers in my living room to headphones, and gave this body of work my undivided attention a few times through (and then - I'll admit it - a bajillion times more). Certainly, this album is more "difficult" than Grossi's previous efforts - insofar as it is especially delicate, slow in pace, and focused more on ambiance and intricate detail than on achieving obvious hooks or driving the beat along (in more than half the tracks anyway)... But it is also very rewarding.
We begin with "1999". It's an easy track, mildly forgettable overall, but important because it so nicely introduces the listener to the warm, gentle vibe of the album. Then, "These Arms" rolls in, featuring some very lovely harp sounds, and a sneaky little chorus I've already caught myself singing absently. The loose pacing of the track eventually culminates in a synth-backed crescendo of swirling elements, which fades into a moment of wistful piano. This track features one of the more notable lyrical moments on the album - "Where does it begin, When you love somebody? Maybe it's that moment when we leave our bodies and become, something more than what they see, just like the air that's in between, these arms" Lyrically, the song seems to nod back toward the themes in "Silhouette" on Rapor - the safe harbor of friendship celebrated there grows in this track to encompass a more romantic sensation. "Never Far Away" picks up the pace a bit. The song features a wide variety of textures and a groovy rhythmic element that's easy to toe tap to, if not dance outright. It's one of the sexier tracks on the album, and features a few very nice rapid harp moments, as well as a number of odd little sounds (fingers touching but not plucking strings for example) that add to the feeling this song is being performed right here, right now. "Darling" is a sort of lullaby, featuring some achingly lovely vocal harmonies piled like clouds in the background. Initially, the song puts acoustic guitar sounds front and center - it stands out a bit from the more harp-oriented tracks on the album for this reason, but the harp does eventually join the plucky guitar for some lovely interplay, especially as the guitar brings in some deeper notes to contrast with the high pitches of the harp and the vocals. "Mercy" is another quietly sexy tune notable for it's layered vocals and harmonies, (slowly) danceable beats, very high-pitched vocal croons (oh, the yearning!), and lyrical musings on the confounding/aching/guiding nature of desire.
With "Mercy", the first half of the album wraps, and we enter a more fraught, intense space more in keeping with the vibe of Active Child's first album and subsequent EP. Just as "1999" eased us into the first half, the wordless and evocative "Midnight Swim" forms a sort of passage into the back half with an ominous, throbbing bass line, ethereal washes of sound, and blooming flurries of plucked notes. "Stranger" picks up the growing tension and runs with it. The lyrics paired with the keening vocal inflection and the introduction of a driving drum track midway through express both deep frustration and a terrible need, capturing a relationship that in its failings have made strangers of the two people involved. From here, we launch into another kind of frustration entirely with the (again, slowly) danceable track "Temptation", a sexy number with shimmery backing synths and a delectable groove. Is the eponymous temptation the solution, a sensual escape from the pain of the previous track? Or is it the cause, a moment of glittering, racy infidelity (in the vein of the monumental "Johnny Belinda" from You are All I See)? Either way, "Temptation" is my favorite track on the album, a perfect balance between the languid ease and the driving tension of the songs to this point. The next song "Lazarus" comes in strong and pounding, but abruptly drops off into a delicate ballad-like sound. This track is a study in conflicting textures, using piano to unite the delicate and dense sections into one experience that oscillates between intimate closeness and towering height. From here, the transition to the final track "Too Late" feels a bit sudden. The beginning of the song features some of the vaguely 80s-sounding style that bothered me so much initially. The song unfolds into a piano ballad that puts Grossi's voice front and enter. The song for me is saved from devolving into utter cheesiness by the chorus, which features absolutely stunning vocal harmonies backed by a sweet swooning note. It's not my favorite track, and it does dip weirdly back into the territory of the first half of the album, but it makes for a very pretty closer. I am left wondering if the track listing could have been tweaked a little bit to achieve a different flow, one that perhaps would have more of a sense of closure - or if one or two more songs at the end could have bolstered up the return to the gentle vibe.
Overall though, I love this album very much. It is a lovely collection of melodies with a lot to offer sonically, lyrically, and emotionally. I would definitely recommend it to current fans of Active Child who have enjoyed his work up to this point - just keep an open mind and continue listening until it gets to that comfy worn-in point where it makes sense. Additionally, there are some standout individual tracks I will definitely be playing for non-initiated friends in an effort to convert them to the peculiar, magic, groovy, harp-and-falsetto sensibility that is Active Child (specifically, "Temptation", Stranger", and "Never Far Away").
4.5/5 stars. (Oh and, really you must see it live if you can! The vibe is positively angelic, adding to the experience, and it is amazing to watch Pat play harp and piano while simultaneously singing such challenging music - stunning.)