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Just before making 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, Mercury Rev sought inspiration by retreating to one of the sacred wellsprings of American rock ‘n’ rollUpstate New York, home of Woodstock and the same place where Bob Dylan and the Band conjured up that most American of albums, The Basement Tapes. The result was a brilliant work of studio sorcery, an improbable fusion of futuristic dream-pop and American roots music. In this context, the disc’s magical “Hudson Line”on which the Band’s Garth Hudson, in a moment of inspired intergenerational musical continuity, played hornsseemed more like a journey through time than space, with its chorus of “Gonna leave the city, gonna catch the Hudson Line/’Cause ya know I love the city but I haven’t got the time” serving as a timeless rallying cry for every artist who has ever fled the bustling metropolis in search of some simpler mode of living.
Indeed, Deserter’s Songs put a decidedly languid spin on Mercury Rev’s signature sound, which places lead singer Jonathan Donahue’s anorexically thin and wavering vocals and guitarist Grasshopper’s sinuous six-string lines amid imposing arrangements that sound as if they took about a year each to mix. It was an approach that earned over-the-top praise from critics in both the United States and England, and expectations for the band’s follow-up have been sky-high. Well, the new one, All Is Dream, is finally outand though it doesn’t exactly constitute a great leap forward, it does make it clear that the Mercs haven’t exactly been sitting on their hands these three long years.
This time around, the band has progged things up a bit, toning down the earthy American touchesno bushy-bearded, good-ol’-boy classic rockers hung around during this onein favor of a more streamlined art-rock sound. Thus, whereas Deserter’s Songs’ “Goddess on a Hiway” barreled along like a Buick 6and boasted an organ flourish straight outta Highway 61 Revisitedthe similarly up-tempo “You’re My Queen” on All Is Dream sounds more like Brian Eno-style glam rock than anything created in the environs of Woodstock.
To a whole generation haunted by nightmares of the Three Horsemen of the Prog-Rock Apocalypse (Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to you), “art rock” still carries the pestilential taint of musical pretentiousness, and the reason is evident on All Is Dream’s opening track, “The Dark Is Rising,” which is less a song than a chilling cautionary tale on the dangers of overproduction. I’ve grown to enjoy the track’s essentially simple melody and Donahue’s plaintive vocals, but why the band chose to bury them beneath the bombast of a London Philharmonic’s worth of soaring strings, blaring horns, and singing fat ladies remains a mystery. And insofar as the symphonic overkill is not done tongue-in-cheekbelieve me when I say that the prevailing odor is that of ELP and not ELOmy first impulse was to conclude that the boys have been inhaling a little too much New York State bull manure. The same goes for “A Drop in Time,” a ditty so larded with cartoon strings, twittering flutes, and comically warbling Valkyries that you feel guilty not putting on black tie to listen to it.
On the flip side, it’s been decades since prog has sounded as good as it does on the epic “Hercules,” All Is Dream’s standout closer. Folks, I do not speak facetiously when I say that “Hercules” succeeds in reviving the monumental rock-song tradition of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Yes’ “Roundabout,” and Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” all of which, when played back in the ’70s on FM radio, filled adolescent marijuana users with phantom visions of power and glory like nothing else they would ever hear their entire lives.
Like those old favorites, “Hercules” has several movementsa beautiful acoustic-guitar intro; a steadily building second section in which Donahue’s vocals, an acoustic guitar, and a decidedly Elton John-esque piano get swept up in a quickening rhythmic undercurrent, as if being pulled out to sea; an ecstatic midsection that includes one of the coolest guitar solos this side of Jimmy Page; and a short, subdued final passage that returns us to the beginning. Also like the aforementioned songs, “Hercules” takes as its subject matter so much mythopoetic humbug. Why, it even has the kind of resonant but easy-to-digest philosophical messageall is dream, dude!that made Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” the inspiration for so many stoned dorm-room metaphysicians. It’s been far too long since anybody dared to put out a song this wonderful, grandiose, and dumbly vulnerable to pointy-headed ridicule, and my heart grows glad every time I put it on.
“Hercules” may stand astride All Is Dream like a colossus, but the disc has plenty of other fine tracks, too. One of the chief beauties of Deserter’s Songs was Mercury Rev’s ability to create songs that seemed both fragile and brutal. On the new album, “Nite and Fog” and “Little Rhymes” both share this mingling of seemingly contradictory attributes, with Jeff Mercel’s driving drums propelling Donahue’s ethereal voice forward like a rocketful of disembodied memories. “Little Rhymes” in particular is a haunting evocation of anxiety and the things we do to escape it. The song’s opening, in which Donahue’s echoing vocals are joined by Mercel’s simple snare, is utterly captivating, and the choruswith its shaken tambourine and gorgeous pedal-steel linesis not only one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard all year but also a reminder that those “little rhymes” we come up with to keep the demons at bay are artand, for most of us, just may be the greatest contribution we make in this life.
It’s been 10 years since Mercury Rev released its debut, the wonderfully skewered psychedelic-grunge masterwork Yerself Is Steam. Like the Flaming Lipswhose sounds and career trajectory have followed a remarkably parallel arcthe band has since moved steadily away from guitar-based freakouts toward a sound that is more polished and accomplished but no less noncommercial. Not that these guys don’t deserve widespread commercial success, but the tragedy of contemporary pop music is that, thanks to the utter vapidity and shortsightedness of modern radio, “Hercules” will never have the chance to become the “Stairway to Heaven” of the future. If we lived in a perfect world, All Is Dream would be Top 40, baby and “Hercules” would be the ubiquitous anthem that lonely teen stoners everywhere would carry with them for the rest of their lives like some fugitive dream of their more heroic selves. CP