Deserters songs, that’s what someone called the results of the basement sessions between the Band and Bob Dylan. Made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millenium or Apocalypse or both. The year America fell apart, Newt Gingrich has said, writes Greil Marcus in his 1997 book Invisible Republic.
Thirty years later, Mercury Rev have called their fourth album, Deserters Song, making their intentions known with little left to debate. There’s little that can be said about this new album that couldn’t have been said about Mercury Rev’s last album, See You On The Other Side. The latter was a great album in the traditional sense of a collection of songs that are united. The musical themes, the lyrical themes provided a complex map to journeys between real and imagined worlds. There hasn’t really been an easier album to write about though few people did as the album seemed to slip through the many cracks that major labels have created. Where critics usually have to invent the narratives that run through the album, Mercury Rev actually made an album with enough diligence that the pieces fit together.
Mercury Rev make Sargasso Sea music. They’re searching for some place that never existed, or no longer exists. They’re searching for a vanished America, or an imagined America, and trying to make it real. On a lyric sheet with the familar stereophonic sound logo, a Realistic transistor radio, and a reel-to-reel machine, phrases like I’m so close I’m almost inside/ Won’t be long before the mystery is mine. (“Racing The Tide”) and Adrift across the silver screen just imagine you and me/ Our strolling make-believe ballroom glides set the rainbow room afire. (“A Kiss From An Old Flame”) stuck out.
There’s a distinctly fake, nostalgic quality to both the last two Mercury Rev albums. And I do mean “nostalgia” with its full connotations. If nostalgia is defined as a longing for things you never knew, that never existed, then this is definitely nostalgia. What Mercury Rev are nostalgic for is the Big Pink, that spirit that went into the Basement Tapes, but what Deserters Songs lacks is shadows. In their fairy tale land, the sun shines on everyone. It’s as real as the world that Truman lives in. The evidence of nostalgia is present to the extent that Mercury Rev even moved to the Catskill Mountain range, which is where the Big Pink is located, and two members of the Band are enlisted on this project. After all, everybody wants to live in their record collection. It’s pretty clear that all parties involved had a lot of fun on this song, but is it just me, or is there something way too precious and sugar-sweet about “Hudson Line”? Garth Hudson’s saxophone solo rots my teeth. Out of all the saxophone solos ever recorded, this must surely take the cake, the whole banana. It belongs on an Eric Clapton album. And then there’s the lyrics – “we’re going to leave the city, hop the train tonight, got a one-way ticket, the moon is shining bright, going to leave this city, going to catch the Hudson line, you know I love this city, but I haven’t got the time” is the chorus, while phrases like “Molly has her kite and Joe has her balloons” are everywhere. It’s like some vision of America by someone who’s never been there. It’s far worse than any quaint Hollywood image of the 1950s with bobbysox, blue jeans, and the soda fountain. This whole one-way ticket thing, these references to the moon without actually recognizing the moon’s haunted powers, this whole love-hate the city thing, it’s all gone too far, and something has to stop it. This is music made by people that no longer want to live in the world, the real world, the one you and I live in, even if on a philosophical tangent you might want to argue that we all live in different worlds.
Even as it says no to the world, to the future, to us (note the fact that Jonathan Donahue is only doing interviews with the major press, as I was told when I inquired about an interview with him, not wanting to interview Grasshopper so soon), Deserters Songs might very well go on to become one of the year’s most acclaimed releases. Perhaps it should, cause it truly is breathtaking in moments. When the album opens, you might just swallow your tongue, cause it’s so evident that you’re about to hear something so great. And make no mistake, Mercury Rev are a great band. While everywhere doors close on America and American music, the ones that open reveal rooms that have already been pillaged. Maybe cause Mercury Rev are exploring a world that doesn’t quite exist, there’s an amazing freshness to the sound. In moments, you believe they are the first ones to explore a new frontier. Only on a Portishead record, for example, has the theremin ever been utilized so fully. Sun Ra said, “When I play music, I play the notes between the piano keys” or like John Cage preparing the piano so that he tunes into just intonation. You’re getting sounds that aren’t in our scale — notes in between the notes. That is the sounds of like outer space. When you hear the radio waves off Saturn, they’re not in scale. They’re just like a theremin or something. That’s what Grasshopper said in a SAB interview two years ago. The notes in between the notes are the worlds Mercury Rev finds between the worlds. But I can’t help feeling that it’s inconsequential and irrelevant in every way, except in its function of pointing out a need for an America that never has and never will exist.
See You On The Other Side — maybe the title was kind of a good-bye, the record a departure. “We’re finished with you,” it seemed to say. Said longtime Rev member Grasshopper at the time, “A lot of it is quite otherworldly. It has to be on the other side to be that optimistic. People have their escape through whatever, like hooking up on the Internet or doing drugs or listening to music, but that’s going to the other side. You’re changing your consciousness or altering who you are. That is the theme that runs through the album — stepping back and forth to the other side. We just tried to create a soundtrack for it.” But this time, they’ve stepped out, and they’re not coming back.
On Deserters Songs, a lyric that goes on about “a funny bird that never lands” reminds me of a joke in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s 1990 movie Days of Being Wild. It’s a movie that plays as many tricks on time as the Basement Tapes does, in a sixties Hong Kong that feels like the future, as a film critic observed. Watching it, you can’t help but be seduced by the Leslie Cheung character. Immensely attractive and impeccably cool, he pines for a relationship with a mother he never knew, while Hong Kong’s prettiest girls nearly die in grief when they can’t keep him. He is the guy that can say “no” to everyone, and it’s enviable, until you realize that he can only say “no” so easily, cause he was refused first. He talks throughout the movie about, “This bird that flies and flies all its life, and only lands when it dies.” Of course, he sees himself as the bird. But late in the movie, as he bleeds to death on a train in the Phillipines, he starts to talk about this bird to the Andy Lau character, who just says, “Enough, that shit only works on girls.” It’s a funny joke, and it’s effective, cause you go from idolizing this cool bachelor to seeing him for what he is, which is more than a little pathetic, albeit still cool.
On Deserters Songs, “The Funny Bird” is the most wild, most raging … well, it’s supposed to be. That’s what people will write. It’ll get called a great rock song, and written about in the language of uncontained excitement and freedom. But you’ve been here before. You’ve already been seduced by all this shit. This isn’t charting the new frontier. With every hairpin curve, this song roars around, you know what’s going to happen, that everything’s going to work out okay. This isn’t a risky album. There’s nothing you can write about this album that hasn’t been written better about something else. These are more precisely desert songs. They’ve relinquished any claim on the future, and they’re happy to live in a sealed past.
“How does that old song go?” That’s the chorus of the album’s opening song, “Holes.” And that’s about what the album tries to figure out. I wish you luck Mercury Rev. May you find the mystery. You’re so close, you’re almost inside. I’ll see you when you get there, when you end up right where you began.