There’s a part of me that’s always amazed at how Cody Jinks is able to filter modern mainstream marketing through an independent formula and approach.
And as for what I’m trying to say with that, I mean that this is an artist who can say he has both gold and platinum-certified songs, albums that have reached the top of the charts, and a single starting to take off at mainstream country radio, and has essentially released an album every year since 2015, all while remaining completely independent and farming success through word-of-mouth over social media wizardry. Sure, there are a select few other success stories from outside of the Nashville establishment, but none quite comparable in scope and approach to what Jinks has accomplished thus far, and that’s to be commended.
But, there’s another part of me that has to question how much of a rise one can handle, because while Jinks is certainly prolific and has released a slew of great projects, I have to admit, his double album concept in 2019 was likely the first time where I noticed some cracks in the formula – perhaps too much of a good thing that comes with focusing on quantity over quality. Now, I still like both After the Fire and The Wanting, but I know they could have been refined and combined to form a better singular album, and my fears resurfaced when he announced he was releasing two projects again this year. Granted, unlike those aforementioned projects, Mercy and None the Wiser, the latter a metal project released under the Caned By Nod moniker, were both meant to stand as opposites to one another in sound and scope, and since I’m more equipped to discuss the former country project that was culled down from 30 songs to 12 as it was, I wanted to believe this could be a needed course correction.
Now, I admit, while I’ve sat with Mercy for a long time and have gone back and forth with my thoughts on it, I would say it’s another project, like The Wanting, where I don’t Jinks is operating at his best … even if it’s absolutely the kind of album I’m glad he made. That’s the frustrating paradox behind this album, because in essence, one could argue it’s another Cody Jinks album – rough around the edges, often hardscrabble in its framing and content, and carried by a lead singer with a gruff, hangdog grit to his tone and delivery. Speaking as a fan, though, who gravitated toward him and his sound in the mid-2010s for his personal reflections on the human psyche and how success has impacted his approach his art and mental health both positive and negatively, this is the first album of his to let a little bit of light in, and I’m so glad to hear it.
Granted, it’s the sort of natural extension one might expect to see coming, especially when he’s got that aforementioned metal project to unleash any lingering trauma and hopefully close the door on it, at least for a little while. But it’s also an arc Jinks has sketched out for over a decade of his career. It’s always remained compelling because of his progression in approach to framing it around his current situation, but for a project that’s mostly got a lighter touch to it, it’s a really nice fit for Jinks to finally stop and breathe for a second and take note of his surroundings. It’s not pandemic-inspired, but you can tell events of recent years have been weighing on his mind in the writing throughout.
Now, that doesn’t mean this project sacrifices its edge in approach to instrumentation or production, and I honestly can’t tell if that’s a good or bad move for this specific project. I’ve defended questionable mixing and production issues on his albums ever since Lifers, but this may be the first project where even I’m a little put off by a few elements, like how an often jagged midrange yet firm low end emphasizes the percussion more than it should on clunkier cuts like “Hurt You” or “Feeding the Flames.” Or how Jinks himself always seems to be a shade too quiet in the mix to either lend blunt swagger and heft to the album’s sharper moments or lend some needed subtlety to the quieter ones, because he’s always been capable of doing both. And I think why it bothers me more here than before is because, again, this isn’t an album brooding in darkness, so sacrificing what could have been a full-bodied or better-balanced mix for this album in favor of emphasizing those rougher tones hardly ever sounds like the right call here – especially not for an album that thus far has earned comparisons to Randy Travis and Alan Jackson, of all people.
Mind you, I do hear where those comparisons enter into play. The title track is a bit more quaint and low-key than I’d prefer, but for a country song offering thanks for a partner’s grace as Jinks sorts through his demons off the subtle dobro accents, it’s a nice moment of gratitude. And many have already highlighted the fantastic slow burn of “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore” as the album highlight, a song drenched in excellently rich texture courtesy of the pedal steel and acoustic balance that may provide the closest thing to legitimate classic country music that he’s ever recorded.
Where it doesn’t make as much sense is when you dig into tracks like “Feeding the Flames” or “What It Takes,” two songs I actually enjoy on a compositional level, especially the latter for that faster-paced galloping groove running throughout it. The former track aims more for an uneasy sway built off of the great pedal steel accents riding off the burnished electric guitar tones to establish a fantastically dark smolder (hey, I said this album didn’t wallow in darkness; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come close at times). But here’s the thing, those are both meant to be love songs in the vein of the title track, and the oddly dark progressions of both seem more like odd tonal mismatches to me than intentional choices, especially when there’s nothing to suggest any hints of tension between the two partners that would benefit from aiming dark. The same can be said for the opener, “All It Cost Me Was Everything,” which is basically Jinks’ admittance that the road to get where he is today cost him everything, and yet it’s carried by an oddly bouncy mix that makes it feel a bit less serious and more gimmicky than it should, not helped by how thin it can come across lyrically.
Granted, that’s also to say that the aforementioned mixing issues do come into play as well, especially in that first half. But starting with “Shoulders,” this album really picks up steam. For one, I like the melancholic weariness lingering throughout to suggest that maybe Jinks is willing to give up the fight and move on with his newfound wisdom and clarity intact and find a more optimistic outlook. And I really love the gentle rollick off the piano anchoring the brighter “Roll,” which is likely the cheeriest Jinks has been on record in years, and it’s a great fit; possibly the album highlight for me.
But if there’s another reason why I express concern that perhaps Jinks is stretching himself a bit too thin, it would likely come through in the lyrics. Again, definitely not so much the concept or thematic arc, but rather in the way that a lot of this album can feel too broadly sketched for an artist who has tapped into more personal details on past projects and delivered greatness because of it. Not to say that cuts like the title track, “Shoulders” or especially “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore” don’t get there, or that employing the narrative device doesn’t suit the reflection of mortality on the divorce-fueled “Dying Isn’t Cheap” well. It’s not even to say that broadly sketched ideas can’t be properly unleashed well. This is a testament to the unsung strength of the melodic focus that’s always anchored Jinks’ best work, but considering “Like a Hurricane” is an empowerment anthem that has as much punch as, say, “Loud and Heavy” and can work when the ragged, weary edges suggest Jinks actually understands what going to Hell and back is like, it’s a genuinely potent momen; I both am and am not surprised this is the chosen radio single.
But there’s also “Hurt You,” which is about how we as listeners aren’t supposed to find this sort of melancholic anger and depression on display cool, and that our enjoyment probably says more about us than we’d like to think … and is also a theme Jinks exercised much better on “Wounded Mind” two years before. And really, did the album need to end on a clunky drinking song in “When Whiskey Call the Shots,” especially when the groove feels stilted and the song feels oddly hollow and stiff as a whole? There’s definitely a compelling arc explored here, just not with the proper consistency, sadly.
I think that’s my biggest frustration with Mercy as a whole, because with the proper fine-tuning in mixing and production as well as sequencing and lyrical flow, this could have been one of Jinks’ best projects in years. Instead, it’s an album trying to remain optimistic that still can’t quite close the door on its past, in more ways than one. And that fractured, fragmented nature of the album as a whole does mean that it’s a step away from greatness, even if it does end with some of its best moments. As it is, it’s still decent, but I think it’s more transitional as a whole, and I’m looking forward more to hearing what the light can bring forth out of him on future endeavors.
- Favorite tracks: “I Don’t Trust My Memories Anymore,” “Roll,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Shoulders,” “Dying Isn’t Cheap”
- Least favorite track: “When Whiskey Calls the Shots”