(Yep Rock; 2008)
By David Abravanel | 22 September 2008
Mercury Rev doesn’t need fans; Mercury Rev needs believers, true blue acolytes following the whims and insecurities and eccentricities of Jonathan Donahue as backed by multifaceted shimmers of Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak’s guitar. Deep diving into Mercury Rev’s music is not for the faint of heart. Donahue’s eerie tenor itself often threatens to collapse into neurotic bubbles. “Snowflake In A Hot World,” the first track on Snowflake Midnight, is an excellent metaphor for the band: a fragile incubation of confusion, chaos, and ultimately beauty, but sadly often mistaken for pap and drivel in this hotly cynical world.
All of which is to say that either Mercury Rev are true believers themselves, or they’ve done a damn good job hoodwinking us all for the past couple decades. Snowflake Midnight features more electronics than previous albums, but even punchy percussion and greasy bass synths can’t help the emotional weakness from taking center stage. Look at “Senses on Fire,” a rave-up of siren synths and lyrics consisting mostly of repetitions of the title phrase. But, masked beneath layers of distancing reverb, the aural effect is not a blast of confidence, but rather a willingness to push on despite crippling doubt and sadness. The former is well documented in Donahue—the first Mercury Rev album wasn’t called Yerself Is Steam (1991) for nothing—whereas sadness reached its peak with 2000’s All Is Dream, in which Donahue appeared to reconcile his innermost desires as little more than subconscious fantasies, but to continue dreaming anyway.
A detour into mellow springtime on The Secret Migration (2005) later, Mercury Rev have embraced sonic density as a means to invoke fragility, a move evocative of 1995’s underrated See You On The Other Side, which found the band reeling and reckoning after the departure of singer Dave Baker. While Baker’s squiggly shouts and beat lyrics are long in the past, Mercury Rev’s music still betrays a manic crisis, wavering between self-doubt and celebration. “There’s no bliss like home,” croons Donahue on “People Are So Unpredictable,” while being overtaken by tribal tom percussion and Grasshopper’s soaring squeals before collapsing into the track’s second half, an aural cocoon of swirling vocal parts and loop ephemera. The listener might as well have just witnessed an anxiety attack, coming from a band at once so in love with the world around them and yet terrified of its dark potential.
The synths on Snowflake Midnight sometimes appear as a second voice, espousing the menace and chaos that Donahue’s gentle quips cannot. A startlingly prominent rave-bass line slices into the glistening chimes and guitar chirps of “Runaway Raindrop,” as Donahue declares “It’s time to surrender / Time to awake / Waiting is for buzzards / Wolves never wait.” What exactly Donahue means by “a wolf never waits” is difficult to guage: is he trying to toughen up, or cautioning the object of his verses against the harshness of reality? Snowflake in a hot world, buzzard in a world of wolves, the message here is clear: it’s a terrible time to be fragile, sincere, and unguarded. Perhaps Mercury Rev are turning to stronger beats and heavy synths as a kind of protection; The Secret Migration was certainly blasted for its ethereality, with cries of “new age pap” coming from critical corners, but the Rev’s “back to nature” ethos feels deeper and more heartfelt than most gooey new age sentimentalism. “Faraway From Cars” says it all, with handclap-stuttered digital synths giving way to Donahue’s most elated performance here, even yelping like an animal in the background.
When Deserter’s Songs (1998) broke from the mold of early Rev releases by focusing on stories of human relationship, the band set off on a narrative of spiritual ascension. Each subsequent album has moved closer to the new leaf on Snowflake Midnight, which, in retrospect, seems inevitable. Song titles like “A Squirrel and I (Holding On…and Then Letting Go)” aren’t for everyone, though like the other tracks here, it demands the listener’s suspension of disbelief but rewards those that give in. It’s hard to parse the band’s ultimate intentions, but there’s no doubt that every note and lyric on this album are in fact intended, and, most importantly, sincere.