Fans of Mercury Rev have grown accustomed to numerous idiosyncratic trademarks within the band’s music. There’s the tendency toward grandeur that the band employed even in its earliest days (the sumptuous car-crash cacophony that was Yerself Is Steam) and was most evident in the ornate otherworldliness of the 1998 classic Deserter’s Songs and the opulent string arrangements that adorned 2001’s All Is Dream. There’s the shaky reediness of Jonathan Donohue’s voice, a helium-soaked cross between former bandmate Wayne Coyne’s warble (Donahue spent time in The Flaming Lips back in the day) and Neil Young’s creaky croon. There’s the production prowess of Rev cohort and former member Dave Fridmann, who is much renowned as a sculptor of soundscapes, crafting extraordinary sonic tableaux out of the most disparate elements. And let us not forget the skyscraping guitar excursions from the singularly-named Grasshopper. All of these things have, over the decade-plus career of the Rev, made each subsequent release from the band more than mere “albums”—for some of us music geeks, the imminent arrival of new music from Mercury Rev was nothing short of revelation.
Sadly, with The Secret Migration, the revelators seem to have left the technicolor visions back at home somewhere in the Catskills, perhaps lying next to the wood stove or on the old antique desk in the corner. Things start promisingly enough with the first single, the anthemic yet sinuous “Secret For A Song. ” The trademark Rev tricks appear off the bat—crashing piano chords, swooping strings, Donohue’s peculiar whine—and the chorus is as huge as all outdoors. But from there things nosedive into the predictable and, surprisingly, the plain. Where once Mercury Rev painted their musical canvasses with big, blurry dollops of sound, the band now colors within the lines, all edges shaved off in favor of a sound that can only be described as “pleasant” on tracks like “Across Yer Ocean” and the anemic “Black Forest (Lorelei). ” And when was the last time you were transported to new, incredible vistas of your imagination while listening to something pleasant?
Lyrically, it’s hard to equate the writer behind some of Deserter’s Songs’ more sublime moments such as “Holes” and “Opus 40” with such throwaways as “In the wilderness/Things aren’t what they seem/In the wilderness/Life is but a dream,” from “In The Wilderness” (naturally). Things do improve with the aching “My Love, ” the “Phil Spector by way of the Jesus and Mary Chain” treatment of “In a Funny Way, ” and the 78-second mantra “Moving On.” But everywhere else, the aforementioned tricks are rolled out in abundance—those crashing, resonant piano chords appear ad nauseum—without any seeming emotional investment. It’s all ornamentation, used to mask the relatively mundane material. And while Migration does redeem itself with “Down Poured the Heavens,” the hymn/nursery rhyme fragment that closes the album, the listener is still left with a strangely empty feeling—it used to mean so much more than this.
The press material accompanying advance copies of The Secret Migration makes mention of “hopeful spirits,” alluding to the possibility that perhaps the members of Mercury Rev are actually happy now, free from the psycho-dramas that enveloped them in their days with former vocalist David Baker and the uncertainty and instability that gave birth to some of Deserter’s Songs’ most breathtaking moments. And while we shouldn’t want artists to have to suffer for their art, one has to wonder what to make of this new Mercury Rev Lite. Where once we got shivers up our spines from this band’s music, now we’re just left cold.