❉ This is the sound of a band emerging blinking into daylight, writes Jon Arnold.
Mercury Rev initially seized their moment by retreating into the twilight: Deserter’s Songs and All is Dream exist in contemplative crepuscular spaces, best listened to in the small hours where the mind has space to roam. Where their contemporaries The Flaming Lips leaned into sci-fi, Mercury Rev found the sweet spot between Americana and psychedelia, turning America’s wide-open spaces into the kind of myth and fairy tale you could get lost in.
The Secret Migration was therefore always going to disappoint the kind of longer-term fans who loved the stranger, more abrasive band of Boces, and also the listeners who’d come along with Deserter’s Songs looking for an accompaniment to some late night intoxication. The rhythm section’s been turned up here, particularly with the deliberately Spector aping drum sound of the verses of In a Funny Way. It’s therefore more of a morning album, all senses on overdrive where the previous albums are more contemplative. This is essentially the sound of a band emerging blinking into daylight, and for all the metaphors, it’s probably Jonathan Donahue’s most straightforward set of lyrics.
For all that it’s swathed in the kind of fairytale imagery the band seemed keen on at this point, it’s actually their most straightforward album, though you wouldn’t know it from the opening track. Secret for a Song is a cunning welcome, its fairytale lyrical imagery and widescreen tendencies would be equally at home on All Is Dream. A closer listen though tells you the key difference from the band’s previous albums: the strings have been minimized and the piano replaces them. Along with the fuller drum sound it means that from the off the album feels warmer, less beguilingly strange than its immediate predecessors. It feels like the sort of fragment of a story that Neil Gaiman might bring out a few dark edges from. It also sets out the album’s themes of love lost and found and the divinity of nature, mixed to great effect on the likes of Vermillion, The Climbing Rose and Arise until Down Poured the Heavens provides a brief but uplifting ending.
Much as the band are open to changing the sound that served them so well, they’re also happy to play at being musical magpies: aside from the aforementioned homage to Spector First-Time Mother’s Joy (Flying) lyrically and sonically feels like a previously unheard track from one of Paul McCartney’s more sentimental ‘70s moods – perhaps it’s no coincidence that Macca also chose to get back to nature at times to produce that music. It’s the song that’ll definitively tell you if you’ll love this version of the band, with its wide-eyed naïve wonder untainted by rock’s cynicism.
You can understand why the likes of Pitchfork found the band less to their taste at this point: it’s all terribly mature and not for the city kids. The album’s heart of My Love (another McCartney nod) and Moving On, Donahue’s most open and affecting moments across the band’s entire back catalogue, certainly won’t appeal to the alt-rock audience which tends to like its confessional music loud and grim. Their loss: while it’s perhaps not as consistent as Deserter’s Songs it still has charm to spare and Grasshopper’s always upliftingly strange guitar work to beguile the listener.
Cherry Red have more than done the album justice with a beautifully designed book to house the five CDs of this reissue. Aside from the main album and Barney Hoskyns’ sleevenotes which makes the case for the album being a vital part of the band’s story rather than the slight misfire then-contemporary wisdom received it as, there’s a disc of generous helping of B-sides and outtakes which include the band making songs from Nico, Paul Westerberg, Daniel Johnson and Bobby Charles very much their own; a disc of demos and snippets which is a goldmine for being able to listen to how the album evolved from one which was more in tune with Deserter’s Songs and All is Dream, and which is a lesson in how much Dave Fridmann’s production eventually adds to the band’s sound; and an album of live songs from the tour supporting The Secret Migration. The last of these discs demonstrates just how well-suited the band would be to the sunset slots at festivals: it’s also a mark of the confidence and strength of the material on the album that only two of these songs are from the band’s past.
The final disc is given over to one of the real oddities of the band’s career: their soundtrack to Robinson Savary’s film Bye Bye Blackbird. Called, with typical perversity, Hello Blackbird, it’s a genuinely fascinating glimpse into how well the band’s atmospheric sound works without Donahue’s fragile voice to anchor it. With its mix of Chopin, Krautrock and ambient electronica it’s the darker yang to the yin of The Secret Migration, a companion piece in the same way Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor would be in 2008. The whole package turns the snapshots of albums, b-sides and soundtracks into a full portrait of the band: one whose higher profile allowed them to pursue more interesting directions when it let the daylight in.
❉ Mercury Rev: The Secret Migration (Deluxe Edition) (CRCDBOX97) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £24.99. Browse the Mercury Rev collection here: http://cherryred.co/MercuryRev.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series, and co-editor with We Are Cult’s James Gent of David Bowie charity anthology Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon)