Have Mercy – Self-Titled (EP Review)

The Baltimore band return from hiatus with hands up and arms out, and I return from my own hiatus to write about it.

I should start here by saying that this music blog wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Have Mercy. Let’s cast our minds back. It’s 2013, and I’m taking a gap year between college and university in order to get my shit together, realising that twelve months is a lot of time to do nothing much but watch The Office and listen to music. It just so happened at the time that listening to music meant listening to Have Mercy’s debut LP The Earth Pushed Back on an almost constant repeat. With those repeats came a need to let the world know about it, and, making use of the spotty Wi-Fi in my parents’ place, I set up a WordPress blog and wrote about that record.

That was nine years ago, and a lot has happened in between. I did get my shit together (for the most part). I attended three universities in two countries and graduated twice. I found a career I loved, teaching, and accepted a job halfway across the world to do it full-time. 我学习了第二语言. I survived a pregnancy scare and made peace with a string of failed relationships, though I’m currently in one that’s going alright. I published a book of poetry about the first dog to make it to space (don’t ask). I adopted a cat who is pining for attention as I write this. I got those tattoos I wanted, and don’t regret having done so just yet. I lost the weight that made me an awkward teen and, at 27, am a healthy and functioning adult (again, for the most part). I tell my students that I’m 23, but they don’t seem to believe me.

That’s a good amount of change, but, throughout the years, there’ve been constants. One of them has been The Earth Pushed Back, which remains on steady rotation even now. When the Maryland band went on hiatus in 2019, I felt they did so having been one of the better and most consistent groups of the mid-late 2010s / emo fourth-wave [Note: I haven’t written a review for a long time – is that label accurate?]. Coming up via the ever-excellent Topshelf Records, and then transitioning to Hopeless Records, Have Mercy followed up TEPB with A Place of Our Own in 2014, Make the Best of It in 2017, and The Love Life in 2019. For me, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better trio of records than those first three, within that period (The Wonder Years aside).

After a series of line-up changes across those LPs, this seven-track self-titled EP finds the founding members of Have Mercy reunited, minus drummer Aaron Alt, who sadly passed away in 2019. An eponymous album, regardless of the period of during which it is released, should mark a statement of intent, symbolic of the band, their sound, and their self-created ideals. Have Mercy, the record, feels very much like Have Mercy the band, and to have new music of this quality in 2022 feels generous. There have been things the Baltimore outfit have done characteristically well throughout their career, most notably in those early releases – poignant lyricism, huge choruses, and a channeled sense of catharsis characterised by vocalist Brian Swindle’s delivery. That The Earth Pushed Back, during every song, continues to stir something within me after a decade, remains testament to this, and it is a joy to still get that same sort of release from the offerings here.

It’s rewarding also to hear the lyrical focus shifting in new directions, a further sign of Swindle’s ever-developing range and craft as a songwriter. Here, he turns his attention to marriage and family; first single (and first track) I’m Gonna Be OK begins with the lines, “we’re cut from the same / you’ll take my name now,” and the second verse throws in that idyllic image of “a house on a hill / a white picket fence / and you waiting for me.” Instrumentally, the track is a juggernaut, with chunky bass lines underscoring a measured verse which explodes into a sweeping chorus. If Have Mercy is some kind of statement, it wastes very little time in making a mark. The staggered pulse of the chorus is almost impossible not to nod along to, the whole thing shimmering and radiant. I took the record out for a long bike ride this morning, and felt my legs working in time with the guitars here, almost like being on a high-speed stairmaster, an urge to release the handlebars and splay my arms out wide in celebration tough to suppress. It’s electric, and when Swindle repeats the title, you can’t help but inherit some of that same optimism. This has always been a staple of Have Mercy’s music, relief in release, and the opening track continues this tradition full-blooded and jubilant. In the past though, the subject matter of material has always leaned towards darker areas; by embracing something more positive here, there’s growth.

Throughout the EP, there are similar moments which conjure nostalgia for past releases and capture that same dogged sense of resilience while exploring new terrain. When these moments do feature, they are Have Mercy performing on all cylinders – know that the car-based idiom is not a coincidence here. Have Mercy have shown a lyrical interest in automobiles previously, especially on third LP Make the Best of It, where Reaper and Drive thrilled. It might also not be a coincidence that sixth track Fast Car is possessed of the same street race energy of Drive, the stand-out track on the MTBOI. On this EP, Fast Car is a stand-out of a similar standard, one of the best songs the band have released to date. Listening to it, it’s easy to imagine being behind the wheel, the world blurring as the speedometer cranks up. There’s a dizzying momentum to the track which steers it through a sidewinder chorus without taking a foot off the gas.  “There’s some things you’ll want / there’s some things you’ll know / never give up love in a fast car,” Swindle sings here, perhaps a throwback to the opening lines of 2019’s Clair, love in a backseat. For fans of the band, there’ll definitely be such moments of joining-the-dots, and it serves to mark Have Mercy as a continuation of sorts, the members picking up where they left off, as opposed to fully starting afresh. There’s comfort in this too, alongside that aforementioned sense of growth, and it might lead a listener to overlook some of the weaker moments here. Third track I Don’t Wanna Think of You, is one of them, a lyrically cliched chorus paired with production that feels a little too full-on and guitar-heavy, blown out and difficult to get behind. It plays out like an early Simple Plan song, and doesn’t add a great deal here. That this is followed by the slow and pensive Marry Me marks a lull midway through the EP, after a very strong start and prior to a very strong closing run. This reserved and somewhat tepid track isn’t helped by weaker lyrics (“I swear to God I’ll always be the one that makes our bed”) which don’t provide substantial or convincing reasoning for the question at the centre of the track and chorus, “so why won’t you marry me?” Have Mercy, in the past, have always been able to write a killer slow song (see Living Dead and Inch by Inch), but come up short this time around.

            As hinted at, the EP certainly finishes on a good run though, with the double punch of Fast Car and Strawberry Hill, the latter of which bursts into life with the same sort of high-reaching guitar melodies that characterised TEPB closer When I Sleep. It’s a powerful end with another dynamite chorus, the drums thundering behind Swindle’s trademark strained vocals. It marks the close of an EP, which, at twenty-five minutes in length, should satiate and satisfy existing fans while leaving them wanting to hear more from the newly-reformed four-piece. Have Mercy, taken as a whole, is a strong showing, with a few individual gems, and a couple of songs that don’t quite land. For this fan, it’s a very welcome return from a band who’ve soundtracked many moments from the past decade, and who will continue to do so with this latest release, moving forwards. Early into Strawberry Hill, Swindle sings the line, “Did you have a clue that time moved this fast?” – there was a second of pause here. That I can measure out the last nine years with Have Mercy’s discography as markers, means that I have a fair idea of how the time has passed, and that it has at a pace neither fast nor slow, but that it has been typified by songs as companion pieces. I know also that, when Have Mercy were not making music, I missed that they did, and yet, with the release of this very solid EP, it feels like no time has passed at all.

Rating: 7.5/10

Listen to: I’m Gonna Be OK / Fast Car / Strawberry Hill

Links to streaming: https://orcd.co/havemercy

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Did I do this right?

I honestly can’t remember.

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