Mercury Rev - The Secret Migration


If you're fan of the world Mercury Rev have created, then you'll be more than happy with their latest adventures, so come with me as we sail up the Hudson, clamber into the mountains and examine the realm of The Secret Migration.



There's something rather special about Mercury Rev. I think it's because they always seem to be changing. Or evolving, for a better word. Every album of theirs has a different tone, a different mood to the last. Whilst they always sound 'like Mercury Rev' they've always come up with something different, something fresh. Where most bands fade into insignificance and produce album after album of the same old shite, Mercury Rev have always tweaked the formula a little bit. Despite the fact that there's always a long gestation period between albums, they always seem to come back with something surprising and exhilarating. The musical journey that this band have traveled has been never less than interesting and with The Secret Migration, that journey continues in a majestic fashion.


After forming in the late 1980's in Buffalo, Mercury Rev spent three years making a lot of noise and more mistakes and somehow, in around 1991, ended up with an album on their hands. It's not even clear if they intended it but that little album made its way to England via word of mouth. Mercury Rev didn't even know if they wanted to be in a band, let alone tour as one but suddenly fame, of a sort, was thrust upon them. Yerself is Steam, their debut album, was a psychedelic mish-mash of all things Beefheart and Beatles. Beautiful melodies with bizarre time changes and layers and layers of, well, anything they could lay their hands on. It was, and is, a fantastic if bizarre debut album and when they added the delightful Car Wash Hair onto it afterwards it got even better.


Boces, the follow up, was released in 1993 at a time when the label 'alternative' was attached to any band from Seattle with long hair and a plaid shirt. Boces was something WAY past alternative. Music journos of the time said that Rev sounded like Can, Faust and other such Krautrock luminaries but that was bollocks, if only because the band had never heard of them. They sounded like a band of six people pulling in different directions and, at times, playing 6 different songs. Which was pretty much the case. Their main singer at the time was a big, hulking lunatic called David Baker. As a fan I loved him, especially when he used to hand out lollipops at gigs, get extremely drunk, yell at the crowd and his other band mates and then fall over a lot mid show. But to the rest of the band he was a menace. Eventually, for various reasons, most of them involving personal safety, Baker was booted out of the line up and for a short term, Mercury Rev fell apart.


After a while, having realized that being in a band was something that a) they wanted to do and b) they were very good at, singer Jonathan and guitar player Grasshopper (yes you read that correctly) decided to resurrect the band from its ashes. Their marvellous third album, See You On The Other Side didn't even sound like a relative of its predecessors but instead was a daft but dazzlingly entertaining album filled with crafty pop song lyrics, frenetic, wig-out guitar jams and bizarre instrumentation. (Find me another album from 1995 that contains a mojo stick, bowed saws, a quartz arhoolie flute and a Tettix Wave Accumulator!) It was the most commercial album they'd done (in that it sounded like it had radio friendly tunes on it), the critics loved it and of course it sold next to nothing, so the band disappeared into the mountains once again; this time with various substance addictions as baggage.


Sorting themselves out took some time, but the band returned to their home town of Kingston, NY and eventually found solace and inspiration in the area around them. Kingston lies on the Western banks of the Hudson River, which flows South towards Manhattan. To the West of the town rise the Catskill Mountains, a glorious, beautiful area of dense forests, dramatic wilderness and stunning mountain views. Their fourth album, 1998's Deserter's Songs was a masterpiece. Recorded in the studio of their original bass player, Dave Fridmann, and layered with dramatic string sections, delicate (and not so delicate) piano parts and bowed saws it bore little, if any, resemblance to anything they'd recorded previously, but showcased the true power and imagination that this band contain within them. The album catapulted the band into the mainstream, with critics foaming at the mouth, running out of superlatives to describe the album and Dave Fridmann became the most sought after record producer since Phil Spector with every band and artist on the planet wanting to, 'sound like Mercury Rev.' For once, the band found an audience that weren't art students and who didn't read 'the inkies'. Instead, highbrow broadsheets gave them fond reviews and the Mercury Rev following grew and grew. Another three year wait followed before All Is Dream appeared, which took the beauty of Deserter's Songs and added some darker layers. Lyrically, the album referenced a lot of occult writings and the atmosphere of the album was slightly more sinister and threatening, whilst still being undeniably beautiful. Live, it was even more impressive.


Now, after another three year refuelling stop in the Catskills, the Rev have returned with The Secret Migration which may be their most accessible album to date. The Catskill Mountains are very important to Mercury Rev. I don't think there's another band in the world that have incorporated their environment into their music as well as Mercury Rev have. The Catskill's are a place of solace for the band, but also a place of inspiration. It's hard to imagine that Deserter's Songs or All Is Dream could have been made without the band spending so much time there and here, again, that strange, almost mythical environment is present and in full effect. Mercury Rev have not just created another great album, it's obvious now that, since Deserter's Songs, they've created a whole other world for us to delve into. A fairy-tale like environment with mystical, spiritual and ethereal qualities. The Catskill Mountains are supposedly the home of Rip van Winkel; I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Mercury Rev know him well and have him round for tea every Tuesday.


If you're fan of the world Mercury Rev have created, then you'll be more than happy with their latest adventures, so come with me as we sail up the Hudson, clamber into the mountains and examine the realm of The Secret Migration.


Secret for a Song kicks off the album and things begin with a pact, which you must agree to if you wish to continue. "I'll tell you a secret. I'll sell you a secret for a song." This song is one of the most anthemic they've ever written and it instantly pulls you back into their world like a vortex as it builds up into an immense tune, complete with crashing cymbals, strong piano chords and one of the most upbeat and funky bass parts heard outside of a Motown record. Jonathan's impish vocal takes on a mischievous tone as he knows that he's got your attention. He's offered you a taste of something new, but, as with all fairy-tales, there's a price to pay. "I'll sell you my soul babe," he sings, making you feel wanted, before adding with a grin, "and one day you'll give me your own." It's this duality of tone that makes listening to Mercury Rev so rewarding. For no matter how light, simple and accessible the tune or the lyrics, there's always an underlying threat, or darkness to everything they do.


He's at it again in Black Forest (Loralie). Our impish guide has led us to the edge of a dark, threatening forest. He can tell we don't want to enter, but he asks us, "If I was a white horse and offered you a ride" would we go? He's telling us that he'll guide us through, he'll keep us safe and so we follow, deep into the woods. Once there, surrounded by everything we fear and dread, he changes back into his own form and admits, "There's no way round the forest/the only way is through/And I don't think I can make it on my own." It's here that we realize that we've been tricked. He's doing this primarily for his own benefit but then, feeling a pang of guilt he offers us another choice, we can continue by his side, to help him or, "if you are persuaded/by all those dragonflies/offering you a ride/I'll know why." Do we stay and help him or do we save ourselves and seek comfort and help from another guide?


Of course, the song is actually about a broken and dismantling relationship, but Donahue adds that fantastical quality to his lyrics that many will dismiss as hippy, goblin loving nonsense. Personally I love his style of writing. I love the fact that Mercury Rev can take me to some other world, some dark forest populated with ghouls, goblins, dragonflies and white horses. I mean, you can take his lyrics at face value, but they suggest so much more, take Vermillion for example; "Truer skies beyond the swirling clouds/The other birds are off and flying south/We'll have to make our own way there somehow/And I'm asking you to please trust me now." On their own, they aren't so special but placed in the context of this imaginary world, wrapped in the sonic blanket that Grasshopper and the rest of the band create around Jonathan's voice and Mercury Rev can, if you do as Jonathan asks and trust him, take you somewhere magical.


That sonic blanket I mentioned isn't as varied in its ingredients as past Rev albums have been. The bowed saw, so prevalent on Deserter's Songs and All is Dream has been left at home in the shed, for instance. The strings are still there, but the piano reigns supreme on The Secret Migration, every song wrapped around it. The drums and cymbals seem to splash rather than crash (especially on Diamonds, a song about the beauty of the rain, where they actually sound like the pitter patter of raindrops). Grasshopper's guitar is also less noticeable, being used to texture rather than lead a tune. The band have actually reigned themselves in a bit, using less instruments and yet have managed to keep that wonderful, widescreen, wall of sound approach that they've developed over the past few albums. The result is something more immediate and accessible than anything they've released previously. Jonathan's voice is captured better here than it has before as well. I loved All Is Dream, but when I heard the drama and theatrics that Jonathan put into those songs live, I realized how much that album could have been even better. On The Secret Migration, that drama is captured with Jonathan playfully accentuating various words and phrases; if they improve on this live I'll be amazed!


What we've got then, in the end, is another stunning record. Whilst being more accessible and certainly more radio friendly than anything they've done previously I wasn't sure I would think of it as fondly as Deserter's Songs or All Is Dream, but after living with the album for a few weeks I've grown to adore it. It's an ode to nature and a description of lost and faltering loves and friendships but it's so much more. I won't say it's better or worse than any of their previous albums, but it does sound like the album they've been working towards all along. Hopefully their fans will love it as much as I and that word of mouth garners them even more fans and praise. If you give in to its charms, you'll find yourself in an album, and in a world, "that you won't forget/for as long as you live". The Secret Migration is truly, truly magical.


Words : Damian Leslie