Deserter's Songs (V2 Records/BMG 27027)
That noisy obscurantist pop group Mercury Rev might come up with such a large-scale departure from their sub-Sonic Youth indie rock days, with a strong emphasis on songwriting, is one of the more marvellous twists of fate to occur in the last decade of music. Very pleasant, at times difficult, and frequently extraordinary, Deserter's Songs shows that anyone can reinvent themselves, in this case into an entirely new sphere of quality.
Following the departure of their porcine and rather obnoxiously-voiced original singer (for whose absence the band is much better off), the creative reins are now mainly in the hands of Jonathan Donahue, and he seems entirely comfortable dispensing with whatever came before (which, frankly, holds no interest for me) and pursuing this new path. Bravo.
The band retired to the Appalachians, "away from it all," so to speak, and recorded with and took up apprenticeship from Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band, who pioneered the "away from it all" approach with Dylan 30 years earlier. The self-imposed isolation gives the recording an insular, wide-open, and beautiful sound, one that creates its own world.
The distorted walls of guitar sound they'd explored in the past have been replaced with vintage keyboards (fast becoming a cliché but used unselfconsciously here), vocal choirs, strings, woodwinds, and the occasional bowed saw.
Sonic surprises abound, and the album generally makes a nice fusion of American roots rock, folk songwriting, and certain Britpop sensibilities.
The album opens spectacularly. The first three songs are jaw-dropping "Holes" opens, a melancholy, six-minute opus on the nature of relationships that get strained, and, I believe, the heartache that comes from being in a band. The last line is telling: "Bands, those funny little plans, that never work quite right." The song is gorgeous, full of mysterious, hard-to-pinpoint sounds and some other-worldly solos.
On top of it all is Donahue's high-register, frail voice, which sounds on the verge of cracking throughout. Obviously he was not a singer first, but the imperfection gives a feeling of humanity, and ultimately creates a surprising empathy that I wasn't expecting.
This is a ballsy opening; it takes its time, with a carefully measured pace, starting slow, kicking in hugely, pulling back again, and finally fading out slowly with a lot of space to let you adjust to the newness of it all.
"Tonite It Shows" is even more lush and precise, with castanets, flutes, and keyboard strings dancing together in service to the song, as opposed to being used simply for the sake of using them. It becomes some kind of cracked standard, "Fly Me to the Moon" flown to the moon.
The unconventional songwriting is beyond pure pop, but it's intoxicating, and the incandescent production is a perfect counterpoint to Donahue's empathetic voice and personal lyrics.
The third track, my favorite, is "Endlessly" true ear candy, almost like a lullaby. It opens with finger-picked acoustic guitar and bowed saw, followed by an incredibly high-pitched female chorus that shouldn't work, but does, brilliantly.
Donahue comes in, singing simply and effectively, while the mass of instruments builds behind him, somehow never getting obtrusive. The kicker comes when the song seamlessly segues into a direct steal from "Silent Night," played on flute, while a piano trills up and down all eight octaves to almost comic effect. And the bowed saw comes in later for another solo. The sum of all these goofy parts is just wonderful I can listen to it again and again.
The short keyboard instrumental "I Collect Coins" marks the first misstep, interrupting the pace and mood for a moment that is self-concious about its use of "cool" instruments. Great title, though.
"Opus 40" and "Hudson Line" were both recorded with Helm and Hudson, and they're more grounded in traditional rock and folk sensibilities. They're good, but disappointingly conventional, especially in comparison to the insistent originality of the first three tracks. The former includes lovely backing vocals and whistling by Marie Spinosa and Helm's wife, Amy, while the latter has a saxophone solo (!) pulled straight out of the Springsteen canon, which is thoroughly welcome to my jaded ears.
"The Happy End (The Drunk Room)" is another skippable keyboard experiment, segueing effectively into "Goddess on a Hiway," probably the most direct and conventionally-written song on here, and one of the most very beautiful. It's got a great melancholy chorus: "And I know it ain't gonna last/When I see your eyes arrive/They explode like two bugs on glass."
I don't know what that means either, but it makes me very sad anyway. Despairing yet oddly comforting, this is a song for lonely, nighttime, midwestern highway driving, when the landscapes on either side of you are dark and remote and stretch to the horizon, and it seems like your trip will never end.
On "The Funny Bird," the band finally, inevitably rocks out. There are multiple distorted guitar solos, the song has epic length and tone, and the feel is almost like Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," if he'd used more keyboards. It is a welcome texture, although a whole album of this approach would simply be Oasis.
The record then peters out into further instrumental experimentation and, finally, sadly, boredom. Moments of wonderfulness lilt in and out, but the last few songs are mostly a bunch of jacking around, poking into musty corners of dried-up noodles that are best left to Genesis or Frank Zappa.
Though flawed as anything, this record is an astoundingly creative and deeply organic success. It's leagues above what most indie bands were doing in the late 90s, to say nothing of what I was doing in the late 90s, which was pretty much just jacking off.
Review by HIP