For 1998, Mercury Rev did something completely different: they shunned the psychedelic rock of their previous ways and went for baroque. Literally. On Deserter's Songs, bowed saw plays as prominent a role as guitar, and most of the songs are ballads, not anthems. There's a tender, folksy quality here that was missing in the group's previous (albeit also great) recordings. Mercury Rev have always been difficult to classify; yet on this album they make the pigeonholing even more difficult. --Jason Verlinde
ここで鳴らされるは まさに 恍惚の 音。
未だ誰も見出し得ぬ 至福の 音の 桃源郷。
"Deserter’s Songs" feels that way, for me. It inevitably earns comparisons to The Flaming Lips’ "The Soft Bulletin." There was a fair amount of cross-pollination between the two—personnel, ideas, studio time—and both get lumped into one of those cute subgenres, dream pop. But "Deserter’s Songs" is, to my mind, the far superior work, the album I thought "The Soft Bulletin" would be. For all the Flaming Lips’ skill, and for as much as I love "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," there’s something annoying and heavy and self-important in "The Soft Bulletin;" I rarely feel the need to throw it on the iPod. Whereas I listen to this often and eagerly, and miss it when it’s gone. (Every album has its optimum time and place; for me, this is perfect to listen to on headphones while biking along the Chicago lakeshore on a moonlit summer night—it perfectly fits the effortless grandeur of the scene, the way the city’s bright skyline’s dwarfed by infinite nature.)
At first, the epics pulled me in. “Holes” opens the album with verve; it’s one of those rare songs that’s so obviously brilliant that you can’t help but be amazed on the first listen. In fact, I didn’t immediately pay attention to the subsequent tracks; I was afraid the group had shot their load up front until I caught “Godess on a Hiway” and the way its shimmering beauty segues perfectly into “The Funny Bird,” their epic of epics, a stunningly grand piece whose wailing guitars still give me goosebumps.
But I’m a whole album person, so I kept listening, and I’m glad I did, because this album eventually revealed itself to be a tremendously well-constructed whole, a sweeping opus of happy alienation, perfectly encapsulating that feeling you get when you make peace with the fact that you’re too weird for the mainstream. Albums, to me, seem more difficult and more vital than mere songs. Coming up with the latter seems like the bare-bones task of musicianship—not that it’s easy, I’m sure, but there is at least a natural wholeness to a song, an approved verse-chorus-verse structure for the lazy to fall back on. Whereas an album requires an arrangement and a coherence, a progression and a structure that’s far less formulaic. It’s an artwork composed of artwork, a gallery opening, an exhibition; you want it to have some common themes and an overall fell, but without falling into bland sameness. It’s a balancing act, a tightrope walk in public view where it’s easy to fall to one side or the other; consequently, some get so paralyzed with fear that there’s no movement. But this work crosses the void with grace and ease, effortlessly balancing variety and coherence while also going somewhere worthwhile.
So eventually I fell in love with “The Hudson Line”—its jazzy tone, the nicely understated shuffle of train sounds in the background, the way it somehow captures the subtle majesty of the Hudson Valley on a moonlit night. And I opened my heart to “Tonite it Shows” a song as delicate and beautiful and precise as a ballerina. And soon “Opus 40” hooked me with its happy waves of sound surging and crashing joyfully amidst enigmatic lyrics about collapses on the ocean floor. And even the experimental interludes (“I Collect Coins,” the mad scientist orchestral romp of “The Happy End (The Drunk Room),” the late night existential loneliness of “Pick Up If You’re There”) started to feel necessary and important—essential pieces of a coherent whole, giving the listener pause for breath before and after the breathless epics. (Everyone—and I mean everyone—who has ever thrown an extended piece of studio garbage into an otherwise excellent album should listen to this and see how experimentation SHOULD be done. I’m looking at you, Eddie Vedder.)
But that’s another comparison, and this album needs none. It’s deserves to stand on its own, a shining exemplar not only of a small subgenre, but of everything music should be.