I was running some errands last Saturday morning while listening to an all-acoustic program on local radio and a song came on that I remembered from a few years ago, but never gave much consideration. I must have relegated it to the pile of over-earnest folk-rock songs that saturate coffeehouse open mics like fedora-donned white men plaster the covers of modern blues albums. This time, I was entranced by the immediate yearning and pleading for understanding.
“Fistful of Mercy” was the single from the 2010 album, As I Call You Down, from the supergroup, Fistful of Mercy. The collaboration of Ben Harper, Dhani Harrison, and Joseph Arthur produced a concentrated collection of quality songs, but “Fistful of Mercy” has infiltrated my subconscious for the past week, causing me to analyze what has me so enraptured.
From the first note of Arthur’s sincere lead vocals to the bereaved harmonies of Harper and Harrison, it’s evident that this haunting piece requires full attention. The verse is like the beginning of an intervention to the lost and despair soaked masses, acknowledging the flaws and crippling struggles of existence.
You say you feel life, down
Always down against the grave, you are
You say it’s real life, down
Always down against the grave, we are
The chorus is a bastion of comfort, urging the listener to take solace in the communal tenderness derived from revolting against a compassion-starved culture.
Maybe it’s soft inside of hard
Fistful of mercy
Maybe it comes from where we are
The land of the thirsty, the hungry
One of the hallmarks of high-level songwriting is a penchant for conveying complex ideas and emotions with simplicity. The bridge exemplifies this by repeatedly proclaiming, “We have a way of saving our own lives.” Most people look outside themselves to solve their problems, but I’ve always valued introspection and searching within for answers. Simultaneously, the ostensible hymn of salvation through oneness commands a reflection on human predilection.
As the instrumental section commences, it’s as if the grace of Ben Harper’s lap slide and Jessy Greene’s wistful violin melodies slice through the façade of modern callousness to excise the eternal desire for forgiveness and empathy, displaying them as emblems of hope and human interconnection.
The song culminates with a repeat of the bridge and a fade out on the lyric “our own lives,” permanently injecting the knowledge that we all contain the ability to save ourselves, but we have to do together. I’m reminded of a quote from Steven Stills on CSNY’s Four Way Street. “If we can’t do it with a smile on our face, if we can’t do it with love in our hearts, then children we ain’t got no right to do it at all. Because that just means we ain’t learned nothing yet, and we’re supposed to be some kind of different.” “Fistful of Mercy” is some kind of different and I want it to stay stuck in my head.