Wed May 4
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With death-and-taxes certainty, everyone will feel double-crossed by a band they adore. But there are varying degrees of unfaithfulness, and the one some aging aficionados feel toward Mercury Rev is arguably among the most painful in the annals of musical obsession.
The long path from Yerself Is Steam to the recent The Secret Migration is strewn with flashes of genius, mawkishness, and ponderous psych-lite. Watching Mercury Rev's career from the druggy zenith on their Steam debut to overrated has been like watching Thomas Pynchon bag literature for soap-opera-writing.
It would be churlish to chastise Mercury Rev for not replicating ad infinitum Steam and Boces; personnel changes, record-label politics, and tumultuous life experiences altered the conditions that led to their diabolical magic. But it would be lax to let the band go unscathed for unforgivably schmaltzy songs over the three albums following 1995's transitional--and oft-sublime--See You on the Other Side.
Following See You, Mercury Rev reached a crisis. The band lost a year of productivity while trying to leave Sony Records and then primary songwriter/guitarists Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper struggled with substance abuse, conflicts, and botched relationships. They were broke and reduced to menial labor. "I was working in a plastic bottle factory, Jonathan was doing construction," Grasshopper recalls. "But then we got together and made Deserter's Songs, and a lot of that desperation fueled that album. People seemed to like it... thank god."
Deserter's Songs rocketed Mercury Rev to acclaim and they packed 7,000-capacity venues in Europe. The album launched a new phase in which grandiose balladic structures dominate and Donahue relinquishes all rock aggression from his voice in exchange for a choir-boy croon. Deserter's Songs and its 2001 follow-up All Is Dream are designed to tug on your heartstrings. Long gone is the exhilarating delirium of the Rev's early songs.
Recorded in their new Catskills studio, their latest, The Secret Migration, is the most cheerful album yet. It's also the weakest. It's telling when an album's best cut is a 78-second homage to early-'70s Beach Boys. The bulk of Migration is oleaginous, soft-centered dad rock. Mercury Rev are growing old too gracefully.