23
Sep 01

FROM DEPTH TO HEIGHT – Mercury Rev’s All is Dream

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With their 1995 album See You on the Other Side, Mercury Rev created a world for the listener to inhabit. It was a world where adagios and allegros lived together in peace, where the boundaries of the staff were not strictly enforced, where tones were free to be polygamous; sounds of different colors, genres, and creeds coexisted harmoniously. World building is a difficult thing to do and takes a lot out of a band — don’t believe me, just ask the Lord — and maintaining it is nearly as difficult, so for their follow-up, 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, they staked out one particular corner, an America romanticized, as only a Canadian can do, by Robbie Robertson, only more inhabitable and, therefore, less realistic. Deserter’s Songs, whose childlike sense of awe and wonder concealed a masterful sense of composition, hearkened back to an era when there were still frontiers unexplored and riches undiscovered. As it begins, All is Dream, the new album, is what happens when one gets lost in the unlit backwoods of America, when astonishment gives way to fright, when the fairy tales are stripped away and the nightmare sets in. On All is Dream, Mercury Rev leave the confines of their upstate New York estate, with the listener in tow, only to find themselves lost in a world of their own making.

The expedition begins with the calculated bombast of “The Dark is Rising,” the Broadway Melody of 1929, “Holes” tamed and given forced into pop-song structure: it’s as emotionally manipulative and devastating as anything on Deserter’s Songs. Jonathan Donahue, who by now has perfected his crackling Little-Neil-Young-Hits-Puberty croon, reaches for your heartstrings, yanks on them brutally, and knots ’em like an Eagle Scout, presenting the ruination of a relationship as told through a series of still pictures — Boy Meets Girl; Boy & Girl in Happy Days; Boy & Girl Drift Apart; Boy Stand All Alone in Middle of Field Wondering What Went Wrong. He is trying to break your heart: “The Dark is Rising” plays on the radio as the Rev drive you deep into the wilderness of your mind, to the Dark Side of Your Memory where all of your tear-stained memories are just a sigh away. It kicks you out of the car in the middle of nowhere and, just before taking off, says, “Now. Find your way back.”

All is Dream is, this side of Wilco’s excellent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the best sequenced album you’ll hear this year. Listening to it means, unwillingly or no, embarking on the journey out, experiencing the album in the first person: as you traverse the skeletal woods of the barren past, you pass through loneliness and apprehension (the aptly-named “Tides of the Moon” — just as desolate and remote-sounding as you’d imagine), suffer through grief, tears scarring your cheeks, while your sobs ring like double-octave pianos (“Chains”) until you finally decide to make a go of it, to come to grips with the situation, to pull yourself together and look for a way out (the spooky “Lincoln’s Eyes,” as haunted as Pink Floyd once believed themselves to be).

And then. And then. A light in the woods and — is that music? Yes, yes, it is, shelter from the storm, harbor in the tempest, warm and bright, for the first time in a long time — and you say this song is called “Night and Fog?” Well, whatever you say, Jack. Looks like there’s a party goin’ on. Ever read Joyce’s “The Dead?” Well, it’s like that kinda, except everyone’s in wigs. The music makes you think of candelabras and days when affairs were called liaisons. Yeah, this music seems to bow to you before asking for this dance, real 18th Century like. Well, it would be except for that backbeat — the music is jaunty and austere with strings and harpsichords and things (“A Drop in Time”) but it’s got a beat, it’s got a groove and you can bug out to it (“You’re My Queen.”)

The hours melt like wax and all of your troubles seem to have met a similar fate. As everyone’s either going home or going off to bed, there’s one guy at the piano playing a song, reflecting on what’s all gone down, questioning the reality of all that we see (“Spiders & Flies”). Seems to be the only guy in here who wonders how problems that ran so deep could disappear just like that, with a few glasses of wine and a dance or two. And despite the fact that he’s got you questioning yourself, it sure sounds right for the time, the wee small hours where no one wants to think anymore and yet, of all the injustice, all one has to keep them company is their thoughts. Yeah, you’re put at unease because of what he says, but he’s really ensnared you in his — yawn — soporific piano and melody and — it won’t be long now until — your I’s — that is, your EYES — they close of their own. Vo. Li. Shun.

And as he wakes, our listener looks out the window at a new day, except he’s puzzled. Puzzled because he’s, quite literally, out of the woods and back on the farm in New York. But what about the small, well-lit house in the forest? And, and the ladies in their corsets! The strings and — and the guy at the piano? As the epic Elton John prog-folk of “Hercules” begins its charge (wait, isn’t that Elton John’s middle na…ohhhh, right), he understands that it was all, yes, just a dream. Nothing’s really changed, though as he looks out of his window, everything seems much more vivid like it’s not just a new day, but a New Day. He takes a tentative step outside his surrounding, like a Scrooge, surviving the haunting (or was that a dream too?), calling out from his perch, “What day is this?” Whereas “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” was a tie-dyed bus carousing towards a Tijuana sunset, “Hercules” is the sound of a man standing still and travelling distances that we can’t even begin to comprehend, it soars with assurance and conviction, souvenirs of the long day’s journey into night.

With Deserter’s Songs, Mercury Rev created a myth and then proceeded to bring it to life, populating it with people and, most importantly, with sound. All is Dream sets about exploring that myth with the intention of visiting each town one-by-one before getting sidetracked. While out there in the wilds, even the band itself was shocked — dismayed and exhilarated — by exactly what it unearthed out there, just what they’d done with the deceptively simple task of creation. All is Dream is dedicated to the memory of legendary producer and arranger, Jack Nitzsche, who was to work on the album before his untimely death. With Neil Young, Nitzsche, no stranger to the act of Creation, produced the divinely diaphanous “Expecting to Fly.” “There you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly”: All is Dream is what it’s like to be standing on that edge, the edge of all that you’re certain of, holding your breath, mouthing a prayer, before taking the plunge into your own private personal unknown, as a brash “expecting” is replaced with a tenuous “hoping.” And though the album begins with the fall, it’s ultimately about finding your way back and what you discover along the way: the will to live, the strength to endure, and, God willing, the desire to SING.

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