The Secret Migration is Mercury Rev’s sixth album, all of which have been unique experiments in sound. However, it is the last three, Deserter’s Songs, All is Dream and this latest release that the band has moved into far more lucid song writing, abandoning the esoteric for more traditional musical and lyrical composition. Fret not, there are still plenty of spacey electric piano and psychedelic guitars to go around and Jonathan Donahue’s vocals are as magical as ever. The difference here is that Mercury Rev have paired down the fringes, allowing the bizarre to slip through the sieve. Only the songs remain. And what gorgeous songs about love and optimism they are.
The psychedelic butterfly with a human face that graces the cover is about as good one could use to describe this album pictorially. The songs on The Secret Migration have an air of transformation and the realization of hope. They are also achingly beautiful, and brimming with emotion. When Donahue sings even a simple lyric like, “How can a woman I love be so strong” on “Wilderness,” you can’t help but get feeling that if he weren’t singing it, overwhelmed with the feeling, he may completely lose his mind.
“Secret for a Song” is an impressive, tone-setting opener. It opens the album with rolling bass lines and lilting pianos before Donahue begins, “Oh she was golden / I caught her still glowing / I told you where we’re going / we’re off for a dark country ride.” The image is immediate — desperate, youthful love as a beginning journey into the unknown. Later he sings, “All the leaves are falling / two suns are slowly rising / I’ll take you where the morning star burns just for you / my dark country bride.” He continues, “I’ll give you my soul babe / and one day you’ll give me your own.” His longing is tactile and the emotion real. In the distance, behind Donahue’s two suns and romanticism, Grasshopper’s eagle-screaming guitars layer the songs sonic textures that create a pastoral dreamscape. I really like this song.
The dreamy pop melodies continue on the next song, “Across Yer Ocean”. The refrain bounces through the surrendering lyrics, “And I feel that it’s all too real / on a wave of emotion / sending ships across yer ocean / and I lost all my reasons / but it’s you I can believe in.” As the album continues to progress, the ocean of pop begins to become more and more surreal as it slips into the psychedelic.
Comparisons between Mercury Rev and Pink Floyd are not unfounded. The Buffalo trio smacks of early Floyd, particularly Meddle. Grasshopper’s guitars float with ethereal beauty throughout every song, providing the perfect sonic tapestry to the pounding pianos and arching synths that rise to the forefront. However, The Secret Migration owes a far bigger nod to Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys than it does to Roger Waters or David Gilmour. Following the mystic and disarmingly vivid “Black Forest (Lorelei)” and pop shimmer of “Vermillion”, Mercury Rev pull a page from the Wilson song book with “In a Funny Way”. The tune owes more to the wet palate, reverb-heavy drumming of ’60s pop, than any other on the album and thematically even has striking similarities to “Sloop John B”. “In a Funny Way” reminisces about that aching voice in the back of your mind to return to something more familiar. In the case of Mercury Rev, it was likely returning from touring; for the rest of us it is subtle reminder to occasionally return to the beautiful things of the past in order to remain grounded through the chaos of life.
I should take a moment to laude the work of Dave Fridmann, former Mercury Rev bass player and current producer. Sonically, Fridmann has created a world of his own where the rules of traditional instruments can be bent and reshaped to form whatever sound is needed to represent the tone of the song. Of course the band deserves a lot of that credit as well. However, Fridmann was able to turn what could have ended up a chaotic mess of reverb and ambient guitars into a successful marriage of psychedelic music and optimistic pop lyrics, without turning the album into a corny mess of dopey love songs. Musically, the songs are rich and spacious. The lush production allows Donahue’s voice to ring forward with an airy majesty.
I know. I’m gushing about the album. I should stop and talk about its faults…
OK, I’ve got nothing. It could be (and certainly will be) argued by die hard fans and hipsters that the songs have become too lucid; too well structured; not frayed enough at the edges. While Mercury Rev does abandon some of what made many fall in love with them initially, a closer listen reveals that all of those elements still remain in some form or another. They are only cleaned up a little and slipped neatly into pop song reverie. For my money it doesn’t get much better. The Secret Migration is pure psychedelic pop bliss.