Psychedelic. Pastoral. Weird. Noisy. Emotionally charged. Progressive. Regressive. “Roots oriented”. Weirdo Americana. Spacey. Tuneful. Symphonic. Trippy. Epic. Theatrical. Playful. Ethereal. Paranoid. Heartfelt. Corny.
This Is Mercury Rev.
They were kicked off Lolapalooza for being too “noisy”; Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has credited the success of “The Soft Bulletin” to the Rev’s groundbreaking “Deserter’s Songs”. They are revered as great artistes in Great Britain but virtually ignored here in the States. 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 right.
Mercury Rev’s first two albums (1991’s Yerself Is Steam—great title, that—and 1993’s Boces) were avant guarde, confrontational exercises and the songwriting was largely dominated by their defacto leader at the time, David Baker. Chaos ruled, 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, released in 1995 benefits from the departure of Baker in the sense that the band could now focus on songs of a more melodic nature and start to phase out the jazz fusion noodlings of their prior releases. SYOTOS was still bizarre, still wacked out, but was closer to a conventional LP than they had produced up to that point. This is Mercury Rev’s first great album, in my opinion. “Empire State” is the noise epic that leads off the album while “Close Encounters Of The 3rd Grade” and “Sudden Ray Of Hope” showcase what would become their trademark: a kind of Neil Young-meets-Pink Floyd deal. “Young Man’s Stride” is a great rocker in a style that Queens Of The Stone Age would trademark as their own in a few years time.
They only got better. Regrouping after the commercial disappointment of SYOTOS, the band rebounded with the breathtakingly beautiful Deserter’s Songs. Utilizing every bizarre instrument at their disposal (including the bow saw!), recruiting Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band to participate, writing songs in waltz time and ripping off the melody to Silent Night, Deserter’s Songs help turn the band into celestial critical darlings overnight. Listen to this album during a thunderstorm to get the full emotional effect.
The follow-up to Deserter’s Songs, 2001’s All Is Dream, is a very moody album. Musically and lyrically it’s 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” the casual consumer would be right in thinking that this album was going to be a little bit of a downer. However, they would be wrong as there are really plenty of positive vibes present in the music and flower-power lyrics are abundant.
Next album, The Secret Migration, is where chief singer/songwriter Donahue let loose with the flowery lyrics. Some songs on this album are so sickly sweet they remind me of the old Tyrannosaurus Rex days when Bolan was a medieval gnome-barb and sang about unicorns and jousting matches. All Music calls the lyrics “diary quality” and, once again, they’re right. “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”. The Rev certainly went overboard on the cotton candy this time, that’s for certain. But the majesty of the music saves the album from being too much of an indy toothpaste commercial. It’s not my favorite Mercury Rev album by any stretch, but it’s really not a horrible 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 medieval lyrics. This is an electronic mood album full of sequencers and synthesizers and is almost ambient in places. As a whole the album is more cohesive and a better overall listen than the previous one. It certainly did not win the band any new converts, but it should please the already converted, and may even win back a few fans they lost with the under whelming “The Secret Migration”.