It’s a shame the term “trailblazer” has been so woefully overused in the world of music, because it’s surely the best way to describe the wholly individualistic path Buffalo, New York’s Mercury Rev have cut for themselves during their 10-year career. Sure, you can spot a lot of the obvious and overused influences along the way—Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd, to name a few. However, no one’s ever pushed them through the dense thicket of alternative rock in such an innovative and perverse fashion.
Their first album, 1991’s Yerself is Steam, was a sprawling psychedelic affair; perfect for trips if it weren’t for singer David Baker’s chilling vocals (he sounds like he’s being strangled on a number of tunes, most alarmingly on “Blue and Black”). The work made quite a splash with critics, and it became clearly evident with just one release that the band was special-how many groups can create slow, epic, guitar-driven songs that don’t sound indulgent in the least?
The follow-up, 1993’s Boces, traversed similar grounds to an equally compelling degree, adding French horns, trombones, and violins to the stormy mix. But around this time Baker’s relationship with other band members began to sorrow, and the group found it’s gleefully anarchic spirit putting them in hot water on more than a few occasions. They were literally booted off Lollapalooza’s second stage for excessive feedback, then porno superstar Ron Jeremy starred in the über-suggestive video for their single “Something for Joey”. MTV didn’t come knocking.
When Baker departed, the band found themselves at a crossroads in their career. Guitarist Jonathan Donahue took over lead vocal duties, and upon resurfacing two years later in 1995 with See You on the Other Side, their sound had undergone a radical transformation. A lot of the darkness that cloaked the first two records vanished and the guitar work, an ever present staple in the forefront of their music, took a back seat to a soulful, richly developed, and occasionally warbled orchestral sweepiness. The newly buoyant Mercury Rev suddenly sounded like they were making tunes to accompany old MGM musicals (heavily informed by ingestion of opiates), and they alienated a lot of their fans. They also picked up a lot of new ones.
Anyone could see the band was living outside our solar system by the time they delivered Deserter’s Songs in 1998. Vast, dreamy, and majestic, it took The Other Side‘s cinematic inclinations and ran with them in every direction imaginable. Defying easy categorization, it sounds at first like a nice new addition to the prog-rock canon, but on closer inspection the whole thing takes on a weird life of its own. Each track seems to exist in its own separate, anachronistic universe, and Donahue’s vocals echo with a mix of wonderment and innocence that suggested he’s discovering the world for the first time.
All Is Dream is Mercury Rev’s fifth full-length release, and the sense of awe that informed Songs continues to snowball and expand. And once again, nothing is as it seems in their music. At first it sounds like their tightest and most compact work—a lot of the songs have a conventional pop verse-chorus-verse structure that I found bland initially. On second listen though, you realize they’ve repeated their distinct brand of magic-the tracks balloon in vision and scope, suggesting infinite possibilities and interpretations. Opening number “The Dark Is Rising” sounds like something you’d hear on your way to heaven. “A Drop in Time” is perfect for a romp through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Closing song “Hercules” ends on a note that suggests the band doesn’t want you to ever wake from the spell they’ve put you under. Also worth noting is the vulnerability at work that’s never surfaced before—Donahue’s voice takes on the pinched, high sound of Neil Young’s on more than few songs, and it perfectly suits the sense of enchantment inherent in the album as a whole. Mercury Rev are quite a band, without a doubt one of the most distinct talents working today. How they’ve managed to grow younger and fresher in an increasingly cynical and recycled world is beyond me. We can only hope they’ll let us continue to tag along on their upwards drift to a gentler, kinder new world.