By Allison Kinney, Staff Writer
“They say money, it don’t buy happiness… but it can get you a lot of shit” –- a mixed blessing that sums up the guiding philosophy of Mercy Bell’s new song “The Hustle”. Co-written with Noah Smith and Paisley Fields, “The Hustle” is a first taste of Bell’s upcoming album Golden Child.
“A lot of co-writing sessions you start brainstorming, really rapid fire, it’s improv. Within about 15 minutes we had thrown out multiple ideas revolving around how hustlers, like us, working class and middle class alike, find joy and what we hope for,” Bell told me recently over email.
When asked if there was any difference between singing about a character and singing about herself, she explained “I choose characters I relate to. I guess it’s kind of like method acting, but with singing.”
But writing in character is “absolutely liberating. I’ve told just as much truth in this album as my other two. These songs are just as autobiographical as my “confessional” songs. But I can tell more truths under the guise of other people. I just choose other character’s stories that I have also experienced, but it leaves the audience guessing.”
The song’s lyrics are crammed with stuff, and the density and specificity of the objects listed gives the song the crowded feeling of a lived-in and gill-stuffed house. A lot of them come with strings attached: brand names that carry a reminder that whatever you’ve got has to be paid for, whether it’s “a Wayne Newton box set on QVC” or the “Walgreens roses” that our hero buys for her partner who’s home from the road.
The instrumental arrangements are as crowded as the lyrics. Guitar figures are draped all over the place like tinsel and fairy lights. The declining chord progression that propels the song has a tone like a game show sound effect or distant car horns. Even the bass keeps busy, though it’s often buried under everything else.
There’s a melancholy in Bell’s voice that at first seems to contradict the song’s humor, but it’s not really a contradiction. The hustler’s pluckiness is her response to struggle. “Living ain’t easy” even though “the show is fun.”
Of course, Bell sings of telling “the repo man to kiss her ass,” but that method rarely deters collection agents for long. “Sometimes what goes around comes back to you,” she notes — but even that hope is haunted by the suggestion that sometimes, what goes around is gone.
I asked Bell about this combination of humor and struggle, and she explained, “humor shines a light on things. When my mom died, a friend who had had a lot of grief in her life called me the next day and said ‘so…are you sick of the smell of broccoli casserole or what?’ because people bring you so many casseroles when someone dies…Humor penetrates everything and creates a contrast. That contrast is everything.”
For most of “The Hustle,” we hear about the hustler from an outside perspective, like a nosy neighbor, affectionate relative, or a narrator-in-the-sky. But the switch to first person with the phrase “sometimes, I wish I could cash it in” raises a question: who’s speaking? The doubled vocals in this song, especially when you listen in stereo, don’t quite blend into the illusion of a single voice.
Within these doubled vocals, tiny differences in Bell’s enunciation and tone suggest some kind of narrative split, like someone talking to their reflection in a mirror, or their echo in an empty house. Bell’s hustler is alone for most of the song, discounting a “hot tub date.” If the whole song is the hustler’s voice, maybe it’s not an outside observation, but her own description of herself, the “bingo-night, cover-all, memory foam queen.” Alone, without anyone to tell her story, she tells it herself, with herself as the hero.
Asked if she thinks of songs as inventions or discoveries, Bell said, “For me they are rewards for telling the truth. The more I get honest with myself, or as Sam Shepard said, get honest with the moment, something really compelling is revealed.” Her songs are inventive, clever, and elegant, but their strength comes from their groundedness: “the only work I’m doing is digging.”
The rest of Golden Child comes out August 6. Friends: there are good things coming to those who wait until August 6. Until Golden Child comes into the world, you can listen to “The Hustle” nowhere but here: