The latest solo album from prolific Men at Work frontman Colin Hay is a lesson in how deceptive appearances can be. The kitschy cover design looks like a collage of stock photos and clip art, and could suggest equally unpolished contents (to those unfamiliar with Hay’s oeuvre, anyway). Nothing could be further from the truth. Top-notch production values are on display from the opening bars of Come Tumblin’ Down. Satisfying Americana flavours of banjo, accordion, and a twangy Telecaster feature prominently in a rich and masterful arrangement.
After the first track is over, however, comes another twist. The songs, while still elaborately arranged and technically spotless, take a turn toward the blander side of pop. They are positively cinematic, with strings, grand pianos, a small choir, and an odd brass section here and there. Unless you went for the “Deluxe Edition” with three bonus tracks, the country feel is not to be heard again, save for some acoustic guitar picking.
The subject matter is full of baby-boomer reminiscing: there’s a lot of date dropping, old flames, talk of deceased friends and parents, and getting “stoned like it’s 1967 (…) when here on earth it felt like heaven”. The stories do feel personal and authentic – they just somehow fail to compel. The one exception is Frozen Fields of Snow, easily the best song of the set, with a more literary attempt at storytelling.
Hay’s voice, soulful and raspy, somewhere within the Phil Collins – Peter Gabriel – Eric Clapton triangle, makes even the lyrically thinner bits a perfectly enjoyable affair. That is until I’m Walking Here starts, with an inexplicable reference to (I assume) Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and cringeworthy rap verses from Joe Lopez.
Overall, “Fierce Mercy” is a solid piece of pop music. If you’re setting out on a road trip this summer, with passengers from more than one generation in the car, drop it into your playlist. No one will complain when it comes on.