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When I first heard Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety, I was floored by the incredible amount of detail in opener 'Play by Play'. I'm still waiting for the day when that track is considered a club staple. Sadly, the rest of the record only scratched the surface of this bombast. I'm against nostalgia for the sake of it, and the high praise of similar albums over the last few years has left me puzzled. Historically, I've been much happier listening to the classics if I'm in the mood for something sensual.

I had heard Active Child's You Are All I See a couple of years back, and I distinctly recall enjoying the layering of Pat Grossi's voice and the way it evokes Justin Vernon's on tracks like 'Way Too Fast'. Acoustic string sections are replaced with hi-fi synth tones that float over shimmering drum and harp tones. The end result is a little cheesy, but is saved by lilting vocals that act more as an instrument than a voice. Active Child was more instrument heavy in the electronic realm than lyrical heavy in the current R&B resurgence alongside How To Dress Well or Blood Orange.

Until now. On Mercy, the mask that Grossi's lyrics wore in his past has been removed, and most of its poetry is heard absolutely. It's lovely to hear emotional, evocative songwriting even though You Are All I See already established Grossi as a guy that has all his vocal eggs in the right basket. I can appreciate any singer looking to challenge his past recordings, but the tax on the shift being made requires a significant amount of shit to say. That said, R&B is more about love and emotion than lyrical specificity. It's important to keep this in mind in order to keep criticism in check.

It is a little disappointing that Active Child's music is being pushed further behind the voice that fronts it. On 'These Arms', there's fantastic drum panning that gets swallowed by some fairly tired phrases like "Before the end/you gotta love somebody." Love doesn't have to be in spite of something, but he's singing about it as if there's little to expound on. By the end of the track, the harp from previous Active Child releases has joined to further an atmosphere that I'm inclined to be critical of, but would also like embrace as if Grossi is driving into an intense fog with only his lover in tow.

Whispery falsetto wanders into folk territory on 'Darling', a track heralded by acoustic guitar. The song's production is frustrating with reference to Active Child's previous work, but gets buoyed by highlight 'Stranger' later on. Here, watery, Hundred Waters-esque tones do a fine job complementing the stark rhetoric that questions the stability of Grossi's relationship. In the chorus, he admits "All I want is to see inside your love." This line perfectly marries the heavy effects used on You Are All I See and the songwriting focus on this side of Active Child. When the first chorus cuts out, the song rebuilds itself piece by piece with kick tones, off-beat shakers, more vocals, and a polyrhythmic tone that sounds like a crowd of people clinking glasses together somewhere in the distance. It's easy to forget where the song began, but Grossi reminds me as it codas on a similar, slightly dilapidated version of the lead line.

With 'These Arms' flaring earlier and 'Stranger' later, Mercy moves from smooth R&B, into familiar Active Child territory (as signaled by the instrumental 'Midnight Swim'), then back into soulful balladry with 'Too Late'. Here, Grossi fends off fantastical urges: "I want to run back/run to you and tell you it all isn't true/but, maybe it's too late for us." The indecision here at the end is a welcome change to the largely optimistic and passionate love songs that permeate the album's atmosphere. I can imagine Grossi defending himself, citing that although some lyrics may be cookie-cutter ("You're never far away/even when you're far away"/"Everything I do/I do it for you"/"You can do it from the bottom to the top"), that doesn't mean that they don't represent a complex partnership. It's easiest to make this statement when the natural inclination for any artist is to deliver a calmer, more peaceful ending track. But, Grossi already dropped hints of doubt on 'Stranger', making the description of his relationship richer than the textbook themes heard on 'Temptation'.

Enjoyment of Mercy as a whole hinges on whether you consider the boyish, faltering vocal to be strong or cheesy. I find myself stewing on this debate more than on the particular words being sung. Although many lyrics are directly recycled from R&B's past, this is merely one part of the equation. I'd rather ruminate on vocal performance and beat production since they go through more interesting sonic changes; from the single instrument focus of '1999', 'Darling', or 'Too Late' to the stuffy and expansive soundscapes on 'Stranger' or the funky 'Never Far Away'. If the simple romanticism of Mercy's first few tracks is merely the anchor for the dynamic Active Child we've enjoyed in the past, my skepticism is left at the door.

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