Exit the void for 44 minutes and step into a dream. The fifth Merchandise record is called A Corpse Wired for Sound. Ever in flux, the Floridian trio who once proclaimed “become what you are”—Carson Cox (vocals/electronics), David Vassalotti (guitar/electronics), Pat Brady (bass)—have offered another disarming testament to that statement. Corpse is yet another rebirth.
Following 2014’s After the End—a full-band effort recorded by Cox in his closet—the band stripped back to its core. Filmic and poetic as ever, Corpse is the culmination of a long-distance collaboration between Cox and Vassalotti, of endless overdubbing, sampling, and mutation. Crucially, though, it also the result of Merchandise’s first-ever journey into an actual recording studio, one in Rosà, Italy. There, the trio collaborated with an Italian named ICIO. ICIO emboldened Corpse’s impressive architecture of hard drums and searing melodies. The night-music of Corpse was recorded half in the studio and half home, in Tampa as well as Cox’s new adopted bases of New York and Berlin. Formed nearly a decade ago—galvanized by Tampa hardcore and inspired by its miscreant noise—Merchandise are now a band untethered by geography.
“The last few years have been more of an experiment than an attempt to be a formal band,” Cox says. “We’re back to thinking and composing as an intangible musical thing.”
The alchemy was right. Corpse is a record that speaks for the Merchandise catalog—to its depth, to its curiosity, and to its collage sensibility. Echoes of their past—2010’s Strange Songs (in the Dark), 2012’s Children of Desire, 2013’s Totale Nite—are present through these songs-of-experience, but the ideas are expressed more vividly, with the skill and acumen Merchandise have gained since emerging four years ago. Everything clicks on Corpse. It is a total vision, and also extremely catchy.
Corpse bears the complex euphoria of pure isolation. The mood is alive but destroyed, beautiful but bleak. “Right Back to the Start” sparkles with a lovers-rock groove and white-heat pulse (check the influence of Tenor Saw, Chaka Demus, and Studio One). With infectious melancholy, “Lonesome Sound” is one of the most classic-sounding bubblegum-rippers Merchandise have chiseled out. There’s the cold sway of “End of the Week,” a meditation on the futility of loving. The sunk spirit of “Shadow of the Truth” is so low that to hit the bottom it would have to look up. And there is pummeling expressionism on lead single “Flower of Sex,” an austere and impassioned tale of two lovers who are also strangers in a world falling apart all around.
It’s all pop with teeth, the heaviest record they’ve done, a blackened dreamscape. That metallic title suggests as much. It was inspired by a science-fiction short by JG Ballard “about an astronaut crash-landing in a primitive society where, upon being found, he is immediately perceived as God.” Of the title, Dave says, “I like the sonority of it, the image as well. In an unintentional way, it kinda sums up our band at the moment. We were ‘reborn’ as a rock band for After the End, and then we straight-up died again. It couldn’t last. The result is this distended corpse responding to you from both sides of the Atlantic, forever singing in spite of everything.” To which Carson adds, “I like the phrase because it could be anything or nothing but either way it sounds fucked up.” Surrounding Corpse, other points of interest included “Leonard Cohen, Ike Yard, the Byrds, Type-O Negative, Chris and Cosey, and Scott Walker. And Burroughs for cutting up the world in an attempt to understand it at its base.”
Since After the End they have all kept busy. Dave moved to Sarasota and finished his second solo LP, Broken Rope. “I’d been reading and thinking of Anselm Kiefer’s work a lot throughout the slow construction of [Corpse],” he says. “The question of history, the unsentimental passage of time, society’s monstrosity, death, decay, space, silence, nature.” A familiar ghost, Joseph Cornell, turns up, referenced in lyrics and visuals. Meanwhile, in Tampa, Pat has been doing “a disgusting death metal band” called Grave Ascension.
And Carson left home—a major theme of A Corpse Wired for Sound. “It’s about inevitability,” he says. “You have to leave. You have to go. I fought that for years and it got the best of me... but the second you stop living a lie you’re free, even if it leaves you with nothing.” In NYC and Berlin, he directed videos, acted in a short film, started a label called Hidden Eye, did production work, released an LP with a new band, Death Index, and started a dubby electronic project called Video Blu, with a tape forthcoming on Ascetic House.
The cities, then, were productive. But the heaviness of abandoning home is the blood within Corpse still. “Francis Bacon said in an interview once that his work was about trying to understand separation or ‘how life grows more and more like a desert the older you get,’” Carson says, “It’s about the truth of growing up. You can’t take your friends or lovers with you. It’s about finding peace with that loneliness. It’s the story of two brothers that don’t talk anymore but still walk the earth.”
The urban pastoral—industrial landscapes—accordingly left marks. “Steel and iron, construction sites… Berlin is a fantastically modern city, physically and psychologically… the fact that its makeup is based on being bombed-out and burned after the war is a detail inseparable from this record, like green grass growing on a skeleton,” Cox says, “Also walking down Broadway in Brooklyn listening to all the music pouring into the street. Reggae is completely modern music, more futuristic than maybe it gets credit for, at least in the States.”
In a sense, Cox applied the tenets of dub to his own life, too—shedding the past and possessions until truth revealed itself. In the process, he found an old voice, which became a new one. He says:
“I was under a spell, afraid and hiding in darkness like a depression I never knew. I sold everything and started over like I did when I was 20, but it’s much scarier to do at 29. I realized I needed nothing but a voice. The less I had, the more powerful my voice. Fabricating love or connections is worse than being alone. When one burns down everything in sight, only your self should remain. I underestimated silence and now I understand that silence is what sustains me... The closure from this record was massive.”
It follows that “Silence” is one of the most dynamic songs here, with an unusual obsidian glow. Its lonely darkness is why Corpse sounds so naturally of a piece with the blistering, handmade emotionality of Strange Songs, but reborn with production that explodes their spirit outward. It brings Merchandise full-circle. Right back to the start.
Corpse’s penultimate track—a scorched, wide-screen ballad—even predates that era. Dave wrote “I Will Not Sleep Here” eight years ago, when he was 20; he recorded three solo versions over the years, none of them ever quite right. It finds its place on Corpse as a bright, open reprieve in the dark. It plays out like a tribute to the very idea of creative soulmates: “Two pieces cut from the same cloth/Two pages ripped out the same book/We burn in distant fires,” Cox sings. “Blood is thicker than water/But both can go down the same drain.”
The kraut-poetics of closer “My Dream Is Yours” levitate Corpse outward and beyond: “Oh, won’t you be here/I have so much more to give to you/My dream is yours.” There could be no simpler or more beautiful or exacting sentiment to sum up Merchandise’s power: my dream is yours. Their music has always understood that, and now says it: that real potential remains untapped, that there is a sea of possibilities, that we are always at the beginning.