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Merk (NZ) w/ Juice Webster

Merk (NZ) w/ Juice Webster

8:00pm, Thu 22 April, 2021
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On his new album Infinite Youth, New Zealand artist Merk examines the blurry line between adolescence and adulthood, and all the clarity and mess that accompanies that blurring. This is a record that thrives on a certain simplicity of rhythm, melody, and lyricand is compelled by contrast: pop songs influenced by art music, an album about adulthood that reflects heavily on what it is to be young, and a sonic world that is both expansive and deeply intimate.

Merk is the solo project of songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mark Perkins, which began when Perkins recorded 2016’s Swordfish (winner of Best Debut at the Taite Music Prize). His debut album showcased a knack for melody, based around guitars strummed to catchy perfection. While Swordfish introduced many of the qualities that Merk continues to cultivate, it’s on Infinite Youth that he comes fully into his own. “In the past it felt like I was hiding, but now I’m trying to wear my heart on my sleeve a little more,” Perkins muses. He has an understated, commanding presence, a playful intensity, as well as an ability to simply let go. Lyrically, this album treads a line between earnest, vulnerable, and knowingly tongue in cheek: songs that began in irony mutated into sincerity, and vice versa. The chorus of lead single “H.N.Y.B.”, in which Merk wishes a lover a Happy New Year, is deceptively simple, but is at once an expression of love, an acknowledgement of a new beginning, and a nod to the fact that this particular new beginning happens every year.

This feeling, of a simplicity that opens up into a great depth, is refracted through every aspect of Infinite Youth: sonically, it was essential that this album leave behind the guitars that Perkins had strummed incessantly while touring the world as a member of Tom Lark and Fazerdaze, in favour of a palette that captures time and space in its intimacy and immensity. Merk credits producer and key collaborator Johan Carøe with opening up Infinite Youth’s space: “He was so good at seeing where I was hiding”. The album’s approach to balance and contour was inspired as much by the American minimalists and those who followed them (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arthur Russell), as it was by pop songs that transcend the basic, disregard the complex, and zero in on the simple: Infinite Youth seeks to find where ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, the Japanese City Pop of the late 70s and 80s, and those American minimalists might meet.

Second single “GOD”, all-caps, is the answer to a question Perkins asked himself: “What’s the least cool thing you could write a song about?” A key example of the way in which songs on this record morphed from facetious to earnest and back again, Perkins quickly realised that what might sound like a galaxy-brain, too-big question — “what’s it all about?” — is one that we are asking ourselves, on a spectrum of seriousness, every day. Musing on the religious household he grew up in, and the kind of deconstructing he needed to do after leaving it, “GOD” reflects on the process of figuring out what you think on your own terms, as well as the process of understanding that it might not matter too much in the scheme of things. Logical and propulsive in its groove, marrying David Byrne synths and simmering percussion that are in contrast to the song’s searching themes, this is a track that embraces a question, and invites you to dance it out.

Infinite Youth sees circularity and repetition as infinitely compelling tools in moving forward. The album’s thesis-statement song, “Laps Around The Sun”, muses: “Laps around the sun/Feels like I’m just getting older/Always spinning faster/Into the plughole revolver”. What might immediately strike a listener as an introspective cynicism morphs into a kind of celestial acceptance: “Circling forever/Like the Earth and Moon together”. The album’s most melancholy moment, the ironically named “Happiness”, is tellingly the song that steps most clearly away from the cycle, into a pessimistic linearity: “All of our friends/Are sadder than they were last year”, Merk sings, at his most brutally honest. Never too downcast, however, “Happiness” is followed by what Perkins terms the “pocket symphony” of the album, “But She Loves You”. Opening as an electric-piano ballad, it transforms into a swelling orchestral catharsis, somehow still fit for a dance floor. “American Parties”, a song that both embodies and parodies the naive assumption that moving to America will solve all your problems, is both wildly catchy and subtly thought-provoking.

Infinite Youth is an album that is on its most basic level homemade: iPhone voice memos abound, Perkins’ aunt’s voice lingers in the background of one track, a crappy USB interface and borrowed gear make up so much of the work’s foundation. However, even on first glance, the expanse it takes in is clear as a listener moves below the album’s surface: every metaphor on “Laps Around The Sun'' is circular, the lyrics on “But She Loves You” respond directly to the movements of the melody they accompany, the iPhone recording of Side A closing track “Canoe Song” foreshadows the motifs of Side B closing track “Infinite Youth”. 

An album that will capture you on first listen and then reward your every repetition, Infinite Youth reintroduces Merk and invites you, warmly, into his orbit.