I was a little suspicious of the new, supposedly mind-expanding Mercury Rev album, and not just because the gushy adulation that greeted it (mostly in the British press) seemed like a portent of indulgent grandiosity. More to the point, Deserter’s Songs, on first listens, didn’t have nearly enough to do with the old Mercury Rev, intractable chaos theorists for whom “songwriting” meant piling on layers and layers of sound well past saturation point, then (a) meandering on for an arbitrary duration and/or (b) blowing the whole glorious mess sky-high. You approach a Mercury Rev album fully expecting to be driven round the bend by it. And that’s something Deserter’s Songs—spookily becalmed and weirdly inviting—flat out refuses to do.
Once you get your head around its accessibility, the record starts to sound like an awakening, a suitably bleary-eyed one at that. It’s the end result of a turbulent period during which singer-guitarist Jonathan Donahue reportedly suffered two nervous breakdowns and lead guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak briefly checked into a Jesuit monastery. Three years ago, the Rev titled their third album See You on the Other Side, as if in anticipation of the dreamy, rustic psychedelia of Deserter’s Songs.
And yet, for all the outward composure, this newfound equilibrium can only be temporary. In both the lush, Coplandesque orchestral arrangements and Donahue’s hushed, oblique laments, restlessness lurks on the fringes, ripples to the surface, and eventually, inevitably, looms larger than life. The theme of this song cycle is, after all, escape. Donahue’s constantly in flight—from relationships, expectations, modern life—but oddly enough, this is also a record that’s not afraid to look back, in all possible senses, digging deep into history, myth, and memory until the excavation sparks some epiphany or other.
At its best, Deserter’s Songs coalesces the most purely evocative sounds I’ve heard all year: the tremulous bowed saw (courtesy of Jack Nitzsche, apparently) that snakes through many of the songs and—a minor miracle—never sounds remotely cheesy; Donahue’s reedy falsetto, often dwarfed and awed by what’s going on around him; and most of all, the primal, celestial melodies, soothingly familiar yet ineffably strange. “How does that old song go?” Donahue sighs on the wistful first track, “Heroes.” He spends the rest of the album trying hard to remember.