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There’s a discomfiting sameness to the Flaming Lips and Mercury Revand it goes beyond the fact that the latter’s vocalist, Jonathan Donahue, spent time in the former. Or that they share the services of celebrated producer (and former Mercury Revver) Dave Fridmann. Both bands started out as avatars of the fuzz guitar and backwater nihilists, the Lips in early-’80s Oklahoma City, Mercury Rev in late-’80s Buffalo, N.Y. Both have, under the tutelage of Fridmann, abandoned the freakouts in favor of overblown soundscapes and irony-free lyrics designed to reassure you about the universe’s ultimate beneficence. And these days, both bands are selling communitythe former with its bunny-suit dancers and Up With People live shows, the latter with its evocations of an electric Arcadia and, well, Up With People live shows, which the press sheet for its new LP The Secret Migration modestly describes as “communal outpourings of wonder.”
Granted, we’re a long way out from Mercury Rev’s 1991 debut, Yerself Is Steam, but what a fine and fucked-up debut it wasalmost as fine, in fact, as the Lips’ similarly skull-dissolving In a Priest Driven Ambulance of a year earlier. Both records trafficked in the substance-addled, cosmic-minded sort of psychedelia that has been only sporadically accepted in the underground since the Great Punk-Rock Cleansing of nearly 30 years ago. Yet both significantly updated the style, with sounds drawn from, yes, the ’60s, but also from punk and its various posts-, the then-cresting shoegaze movement, and the oddity-obsessed minds of band leaders Donahue and Wayne Coyne, respectively. Five Rev albums later, however, we’re no longer on a trip into the future. We’re stuck in your crappy hometown circa 1974, staring at a white unicorn doing the Misty Mountain Hop in an alpine pasture that has been lovingly airbrushed onto the side of a Chevy panel van.
Gone are the grounding touches of musical AmericanaDonahue & Co., after all, record near Woodstockthat kept the group’s 1998 “comeback” album, Deserter’s Songs, from drifting into the ether. The folksy nods to Dylan and the Band (two of whose members played on the disc) left you with the impression that no matter how spacey the Rev appeared to be, it had at least a toehold on terra firma. Ditto for the way 2001’s All Is Dream tended to find a balance between its epic guitar workouts and its quirkily intimate balladswhich, of course, is gone, too.
Composed of silly love songs and nothing but silly love songs, The Secret Migration is a monument to pastoral puerility. Take, for instance, the bong-and-black-light-poster-mandatory “Across Yer Ocean.” From its reminiscent-of-Kansas “Where we go from here/Is anybody’s guess” a cappella opening to its angelic-choir backing vox and fantastical backdrop of orchestral bombast, the track is a textbook example of how to render a substanceless composition even more substanceless through studio overkill. With his knife-edge-thin voice, Donahue has always been something of an acquired taste. But here he sings such lines as “On a wave of emotion/Sending ships across yer ocean/And I’ve lost all my reasons/But it’s you I can’t believe in” with such quavery emotion that it’s a wonder he keeps on living.
And that’s nothing compared with what he does in “Black Forest (Lorelei).” Some might suggest that lines such as “If I was a white horse/And offered you a ride/ Through a black forest” are a sly tribute to what some scholars of mind-expansion call “sike-pop”: that unabashedly overblown, blissfully melodic stuff about bluebell woods and lollipop minds and feathered tigers that was made by the truckload four decades ago. “There’s no way through the forest/The only way is through,” Donahue sings, delivering this piece of “wisdom” with such apparent sincerity that most listeners will begin to wonder whether The Secret Migration isn’t a put-on after all. Surely the piles of horns, the portentous classical piano, and the sweeping, swelling strings are all an inside joke.
But nobody who used to be so sane of mind and sound of music could keep this straight a face for nearly 45 minutes. And in this unironical fairy-tale kingdom, where everything is exactly what it seems and whimsy weighs a ton, one is usually left to cling to whatever one canthe cool guitar line, for instance, that livens up “In the Wilderness” with some crackling distortion, reminding us that somewhere beneath all the symphonic icing there lies an honest-to-God rock band. Similarly, album opener “Secret for a Song” makes the most of Jeff Mercel’s Bonhamesque drum din, and even woefully underused guitarist Grasshopper emerges from the orchestration long enough to produce a solo that niggles like an elusive memory.
The way the track hides some fragility among the bombast makes it sort of like a Grandaddy songalbeit one performed by a gnome with a jones for silly love songs. But the closest the Rev comes to its grand balancing act of yore is on the Ronettes tribute “In a Funny Way.” Surrendering for once to an actual beatbig and Motown-ish, naturallythe boys almost succeed in getting a real groove on. Mercel isn’t Hal Blaine, but he does a damn good imitation, and Donahue puts down the magic wand long enough to celebrate the simpler pleasures. He even gets a bit giddy, singing: “Through the fields/And the streams/And the lakes/And the trees/And the grass/And the logs/Run all my dogs/And I am home/Home again.” This is cosmic American music, indeed; it’s a pity The Secret Migration doesn’t include more of it.
It’s a pity, too, that Phil Spector wasn’t around to produce. He’d have kicked half of Fridmann’s assorted gewgaws out at gunpoint. Or at least eighty-sixed the saccharine electronic twinklings that show up in the chorus of “My Love,” which has Donahue lamenting, “Alone too much/But now I need you here/My love.” And we can safely assume he would’ve spared a bullet for the all-but-a-cappella “Moving On.” Its lyrics are worth quoting in their entirety, if only as a warning to others: “You gotta start/Movin’ on/It will be better in the sun/Just move ahead/It won’t be long/An’ it’ll be brighter.” Let’s hope that Donahue heeds his own adviceand that next time out, he chooses a different mode of transit. That panel van that’s one lane over from the guys in the bunny suits? It ain’t movin’ at all. CP
Mercury Rev performs at 9:15 p.m. Monday, May 23, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.