Mercury Rev: A Long, Strange Trip
Psychedelic, pastoral, weird, noisy, emotionally charged, progressive, regressive, roots, dance, bizarre Americana, spacey, tuneful, symphonic, trippy, epic, theatrical, playful, ethereal, paranoid, heartfelt and corny.
They were kicked off Lolapalooza for being too “noisy”; Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has credited the success of their masterpiece “The Soft Bulletin” to the Rev’s “Deserter’s Songs”. They are revered as great artistes in Great Britain but virtually ignored here in the States due to the general public’s overall distaste for anything too experimental. All Music sums this band up best by stating that Mercury Rev is “not so much a band as a long, strange trip”, and they’re absolutely spot on.
Their first two albums (1991’s Yerself Is Steam—great title, that—and 1993’s Boces) were exercises in the Twilight Zone, and largely dominated by their mad scientist of a lead singer, David Baker. Chaos rules, especially on the debut, but the clouds parted (just a little bit) on Boces and pointed to a more tuneful, kaleidoscopic and cinematic future.
Baker parted ways with the band after Boces and guitarist Jonathan Donahue took over the role of chief songwriter. See You On The Other Side (1995) benefits from the departure of Baker in the sense that the band could now focus on songs of a more melodic nature. Still bizarre, still wacked out, but closer to conventional than ever before. This is Mercury Rev’s first great album. Empire State is the noise epic, the only song that pays homage to their roots, while Close Encounters Of The 3rd Grade and Sudden Ray Of Hope showcase what would become their trademark Neil Young-meets-Pink Floyd sound. Young Man’s Stride is their finest rocker and, sadly, their last.
They only got better with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs. Regrouping after the commercial disappointment of See You…, the band rebounded with a hail Mary of an album. Utilizing every bizarre instrument at their disposal (including the bow saw!), recruiting Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band, writing songs in waltz time and beautifully ripping off the melody to Silent Night, this is the album that turned the band into celestial critical darlings, especially in England. Listen to this album during a thunderstorm to get the full emotional effect.
2001’s All Is Dream is a very moody album. Well, at least the first side is. It is dark and paranoid, and more cinematic in scope than Deserter’s Songs. With song titles like The Dark Is Rising, Lincoln’s Eyes and Night And Fog you would be right in thinking the album was gonna be a downer. However, side 2 is the sound of the clouds parting, with positive vibes and flower-power lyrics everywhere. Not too sweet and sugary yet. That would come with the next album.
The Secret Migration is where Donahue let loose with the flowery lyrics, some even going so far as to remind me of the old Tyrannosaurus Rex days before Bolan morphed from a medieval gnome-barb to glam-dwarf. All Music calls the lyrics “diary quality” and, once again, they’re right. Some of the lyrics are cringe inducing (“There’s no way ’round the forest…the only way is thru/ An’ there’s no way I’ll ever make it on my own without you/ But if you are persuaded…by all those dragonflies offering you a ride…
I’ll know why”). Enough to give you canker sores, yes? Absolutely. Donahue went overboard on the cotton candy, that’s for certain, but the majesty of the music saves the album from being an indy toothpaste commercial. Not my favorite Mercury Rev album by any stretch, but not a bad one, either.
A film track or two aside, it took Mercury Rev 3 years to record their follow up, and for Snowflake Midnight they reinvent themselves musically and tone down the lyrics. This is an electronic mood album, almost ambient in places, and it serves them well. As a whole the album is more cohesive and a better listen than the previous two. It won’t win them any new fans, but it should please the already converted, and may even win back a few fans they lost with the under whelming “The Secret Migration”.
If you’ve got $20.00 just burning a hole in your pocket, here’s what I think you should download as an introduction:
From “Yerself Is Steam”: Coney Island Cyclone; Chasing A Bee
From “Boces”: Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick; Bronx Cheer
From “See You On The Other Side”: Young Man’s Stride; Sudden Ray Of Hope; Close Encounters Of The 3rd Grade
From “Deserter’s Songs”: Endlessly; Holes; Tonight It Shows; Delta Sun Bottleneck Blues; Opus 40
From “The Secret Migration”: In A Funny Way; Across Yer Ocean
From “Snowflake Midnight”: Butterfly’s Wing; Senses On Fire; Runaway Raindrop
…and, if you can find them, their cover versions of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Philadelphia and Vampyre Blues