Features | Awards

The First Annual David Abravanel Award to David Abravanel for Recognizing the Divine Importance of Some Music

By David Abravanel | 19 December 2008

…that the Rest of CMG Was All “Meh” About

Mercury Rev
Snowflake Midnight/Strange Attractor
(Yep Roc/V2; 2008)

I’d like to introduce a new tradition to the hallowed halls of CMG, whereby I, David Abravanel, celebrate my incredible taste in music by discussing an album which, despite undeniably being the musical equivalent of the messiah, was rejected by the majority (if not entirety) of other writers, probably in favor of some indie pop album in which a collegiate guy in a cardigan sings about some breakup or other.

Screw you, banal indie pop, I got a better high, and it’s called Mercury Rev. One thing these guys excel at is rebirth, and what a beautiful new butterfly emerged for Snowflake Midnight, a triumphant album about life, nature, beauty and ecstasy, with a side of animal metaphors and snowy atmospheres. All too often, Mercury Rev is mistakenly labeled new age, for pagan lyrical themes that anthropomorphize raindrops, squirrels, and flowers. But this is the kind of appreciation for the harmony and chaos inherent in nature that struck Henry James Thoreau when he settled at Walden Pond, or the kind of spiritual reverence that led ancient cultures to worship the earth and create animistic representations of their gods.

Yes, Mercury Rev are taking a big risk with such honesty and sincerity, but the metaphor of “snowflake in a hot world” is apt when considering the suffocating layers of irony that plague so much music these days. Jonathan Donahue is the opposite of Stephen Malkmus—there are no protective shells here, just a fragile being and his ruminations on life. Grasshopper’s guitar squeals, meanwhile, continue to pour down from the heavens, only this time, things are a bit more urgent. The addition of synthesizers is a novel change of perspective on Snowflake Midnight, and adds a glaze to the rave-up of “Senses on Fire” while suggesting disarray on “Runaway Raindrop.”

The other side of the coin is Strange Attractor, an instrumental album released simultaneously with Snowflake Midnight as a free download. Revisiting the wintry vaudeville settings of the Harmony Rockets side project and the instrumental soundtrack Hello Blackbird, Strange Attractor is generally a more reserved and tender counterpart to the ecstatic rumblings founds on Snowflake Midnight. More so even than Snowflake Midnight, Strange Attractor requires near total suspension of cynicism—this is instrumental music with titles like “Fable of A Silver Moon” and “Nocturne For Norwood,” and it features grandiose flute flutters dancing with tense strings and sampled horns. And, yes, it might be something you’d hear at that incense shop run by the kindly middle-aged hippies around the corner.

Mercury Rev’s output in 2008 isn’t an aural challenge; noises and dissonances are never overpowering and gorgeous harmonies fire left and right. It is, however, an emotional challenge, ironically employing more obvious technology than ever to dare listeners to jettison their life 2.0 routines, and curl up in a permafrost blanket with only the moonlight to guide them. I swear it’s worth it.