Last updated on September 7, 2022
A central tenet of the Mountain Goats’ work that every life, no matter how seemingly obscure or seemingly placid, has a story: dramatic, tragic, comedic, sometimes all of them. You can’t know a person fully by looking at them or even by being acquaintances. You gotta know them closely to see the real dramas going on in lives. I agree.
I’ve been covering Cameron Blake‘s work since 2011, including albums and songs that aren’t even available anymore. I know the work of Blake pretty well. But through all that, I did not know Blake deeply enough to know his backstory. With Mercy for the Gentle Kind, Blake tells a story of pain, struggle, and redemption that spans the whole chronology of his career. The story, in his words, looks like this:
Cameron’s life in music began as a classical violinist at the age of 12, a passion that brought him to numerous professional stages and culminated in a Master’s Degree from the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. While at Peabody, his violin playing was nearly brought to an abrupt halt by an abusive teacher.
He put down the violin and picked up piano, becoming a singer/songwriter instead of a violinist. He’s been in the pages of IC ever since. Yet as Blake began to address the wounds from the abusive violin teacher, he found freedom to play the violin again. He even played a full violin recital recently. Stories of resurrection, redemption, and healing are deeply moving to me, so these experiences struck a chord with me before even hearing the music that he wrote amid/as a result of the process of healing.
The music strikes a chord with me too. Mercy for the Gentle Kind addresses the experience of healing through vignette narratives, depicting different stages of the process without expressly calling out the process. “Blue Note” comes closest to explaining the process, giving an account of leaving and returning. The indie-rock tune strikes an almost Springsteen-esque tone in the lyrics and chord changes, calling to mind the Boss’ stark depictions of tough lives. It gives the song an earthy, realist feel.
“Red Rose” is the most dramatic of the pieces, a song seemingly sung directly to the violin. It’s an apology of sorts: “O red rose, I’ll never leave you again / I’ll never lose you / Now I’m wide awake / I’ve found my way / I’ve found my way / Now I’ve found my way back to you.” It works equally well as a apology to a lover, which is probably the context most will find themselves relating to it in. The arrangement is highly dramatic and sounds deeply cathartic for Blake.
“Cricket’s Waltz” is specifically about playing the violin, pointing toward the emotions Blake has toward the instrument after healing. It’s a formal waltz, complete with strings (appropriately), and it shows the intriguing tension that any musician knows: playing within constraints (of genre, of the sheet music, of our own capabilities) often produces the greatest freedom. Two more pieces showcase the violin: opener “Tenderness,” which is an instrumental piece with a spoken word conversation about (appropriately) tenderness over it, and “Sicilienne,” which is a piece by 18th and 19th century composer Maria Theresia von Paradis. Both are as engaging as they are lovely.
The title track closer is an elegant piano ballad, the type which Blake is so expert at. It’s the most impressionist of the tracks, as the lyrics are a collection of experiences and emotions that revolve around emotional freedom. It’s a beautiful, resonant piece that provides an excellent conclusion to the EP.
Mercy for the Gentle Kind is a document of the complicated process of healing. We don’t have enough of these in the popular music canon; not just grief, but how you go through grief and get out the other side. While albums like Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks do show this process after the dissolution of a romantic relationship, Blake’s story here is near-unique in being narrative of healing from interpersonal trauma. We need more of this in the world, and Mercy for the Gentle Kind is a wonderful place to start. Highly recommended.