[1 October 2008]
I think at this point we’re supposed to start saying things like “it’s been a long strange trip for Mercury Rev” and talking about Snowflake Midnight in the context of all their other albums. But that’s just plain misleading. Mercury Rev has been at least two different bands, and their new album (their seventh) may very well be the start of a third. Let’s be blunt: If there’s anybody silly enough to be still hanging on for another Boces (or even another Deserter’s Songs) after the tepid hippy misfire of 2005’s The Secret Migration, they can officially give up now.
The only real connection Mercury Rev circa 2008 have with their past is that Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper continue to be the core of the band. This time they’re joined by Jeff Mercel, who’s been around since 2001’s All Is Dream and perennial producer Dave Fridmann. Fridmann started as the band’s founding bass player and continues to co-produce all of the group’s albums, even if he doesn’t tour with them. The same people – surely that’s enough continuity? Not in this band’s case. The demarcation between the Rev Mark 1 and 2 is as striking (although thankfully not as fatal) as the one between Joy Division and New Order. The analogy is, of course, not exact, but both acts began by making two unsustainable, albeit brilliant, masterworks (although the “problem” with Yerself Is Steam and Boces was instability, not Thanatos), then an undervalued, but muddled effort that finds each band trying to figure out what to do next, and then an unmistakable classic. After that, the analogy really falls apart, but it still holds that the concerns (lyrical and sonic) that Mercury Rev have had post, say, See You on the Other Side, are as distinct from their classic work as Power, Corruption & Lies is from Closer.
To make matters even more disjunctive, the band members themselves call Snowflake Midnight a “reboot”—a complete re-examining of how they produce music. They stopped writing songs and just played, they started getting into the Reaktor program and it’s massive library of user-created effects and sounds, they tried willfully in short to break any habits they had. It’s a mark of how much of a transitional effort Snowflake Midnight is that they both fail and succeed spectacularly.
On one hand, from the song titles on down – missives like “People Are So Unpredictable (There’s No Bliss Like Home)”, “Runaway Raindrop”, “Dream of a Young Girl As a Flower” and so on – this is unmistakably latter-day Mercury Rev. I don’t think Jonathan could stop being flowery or sentimental or fey if he wanted to, bless him, and he is in full effect here. From the opening “Snowflake in a Hot World” (a gentle shove directed at those second guessing their uniqueness, beauty or purpose as human beings), Snowflake Midnight radiates the kind of over-arcing, mystical faith in human decency and potential that makes some of the band’s more pretentious moments easy to excuse on the grounds of good intentions, if nothing else. This album also ventures even further down that prog path than something like All Is Dream, boasting a few lengthy, multi-part suites, and an interlinked recurring set of lyrical concerns with dreaming, love, growth, creation, and the like (all well in the Rev’s wheelhouse the last decade or so). The despair so present on Deserter’s Songs is definitely gone, although Jonathan and his cohort at least temper their enthusiasm, and even love with enough hours put in on the lower end of the scale to avoid being egregiously out of touch with normal, balanced human experience.
At the same time, however, “Senses on Fire” sounds like Mercury Rev have been listening to a lot of M83. For a band who recently sounded more like they listened to nothing but out-there psychedelia, Disney music and show tunes, that’s a marked shift. At it’s worst, or at least most naïve, the textures on Snowflake Midnight sound exactly like eager beginners fooling around with the presets on a software package, although these rookies at least have all their experience making other kinds of music to augment what they’re doing. The Krautish surge of “Senses on Fire” (the most immediately satisfying item this band has done in a long time) is one thing, but when the first four minutes of “Dream of a Young Girl As a Flower” feels like an enthused first timer seeing how many cool sounds they can link together, the song suffers a bit; (also, despite the band’s recent inclinations, even during their early experimental days their best work – even the 10-minute likes of “Snorry Mouth” – were not terribly structurally complex).
The turn “Dream of a Young Girl As a Flower” takes after those first four minutes, however, is relatively stunning. What begins as a precious fantasia where Jonathan dreams that you are real and the two of you are making love (yes, really), overly increasingly frantic percussion and bursts of noise, the bottom drops out. The track feels like it’s fluttering to an end four minutes too early (a problem “People Are So Unpredictable (There’s No Bliss Like Home)” suffers from – it’s a good four-minute song with a five-minute coda if you count the inconsequential instrumental “October Sunshine” that succeeds it). But then stately piano chords ring out, and Jonathan makes a sharp right turn:
You’re the one everyone leans on
You’re the one that can’t lose control
Your toes in the sand
Inches from throwing yourself in the sea
But you can’t
It’s a shocking, viscerally affecting moment, and the compassion in Jonathan’s straining voice (he sounds kind of like you might if you were talking someone off the edge of a cliff) is key to its power. That “but you can’t” is as much plea as statement. The track then builds up again into pulsing keyboards, pounding percussion, and what sounds almost like a half-speed, dramatic treatment of the “ooga chucka” sounds from “Hooked on a Feeling”. It should be ludicrous, it probably sounds ludicrous, but (and this is the glory of Mercury Rev), it works.
It’s followed by a song trying desperately to speak to the “little part of you” that’s “Faraway from cash / Faraway from cars” without ever articulating anything aside from a belief that this part of you exists. And yet, “Faraway From Cars” is another one of Snowflake Midnight’s high points, even though it’s difficult to describe without sounding silly: a poignant and brief reverie underscored by frantic handclaps, maybe? That two-song run is the most direct encapsulation you’re like to get of the love/hate proposition that is Mercury Rev in 2008. Settled comfortably enough in their own weird skin to break down their own sound and re-emerge as dense, synthesized and beat oriented (if this were the late ‘90s, we could call it their electronica album) as opposed to airy, orchestral and swooning, Mercury Rev haven’t quite mastered this new toolkit they’ve taken on, and their proggy/bombastic/unabashedly emotional side makes them hard to swallow for some. They require the kind of suspension of cynicism and “good taste” that, for better or worse, few of their peers do these days. But god, what beautiful nonsense and dreams they produce when they hit their marks.