Mercury Rev – The Light in You
Familiar Sounds from Mercury Rev’s ninth album
This article is from 2015.
It might sound a glib and mean comparison when levelled at a band with such enduring emotional chops, but there’s something about Mercury Rev vocalist Jonathan Donahue’s vocal which reminds on occasion of Kermit the Frog on The Muppets’ 1979 contribution to the era’s canon of vaguely psych ballads ‘Rainbow Connection’. That’s cruel, right? Not really; ‘Rainbow Connection’ was co-written by Paul Williams, the composer of the Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’, and the sense is that Donahue would be quite happy to hit such heights of transcendental, vaguely old Hollywood elegia.
So his voice hits a Kermit-like tone of innocence and childlike yearning, but these Catskills troubadours have been through a lot together, and there’s a shard of grit in there. When they hit big with their fourth album Deserter’s Songs in 1998, almost a decade after their formation, the group were already known for their wayward and hard-partying ways, and this gave the music an edge even as it revelled in Donahue’s swooning vocal and some sweeping, sad string arrangements.
Their three records since then have detailed eroding commercial fortunes, greater willingness to experiment, and – as detailed in the statement which announced The Light in You – seven years since the previous record Snowflake Midnight in ‘an incredible period of turbulence, sadness and uncertainty’.
This album seems to reflect that, and also the journey out of it. Essentially the duo of Donahue and guitarist Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak, Mercury Rev have brought us their most ‘Deserter’s Songs’ record since, conversely, 2001’s follow-up to that ground-breaker All is Dream. For much of the record the resonances are tangible, and – while not hitting pastiche levels – there’s a sense that they’re very specifically trying to come back to the magic of their key period.
In large part it works, although so sugary is the coating that the listener might start to experience phantom tummy ache. ‘The Queen of Swans’ swooshes in on a whispered drum roll, synthesised Gregorian harmonies and a sweet acoustic strum, with Donahue eulogising a trusted lover: ‘only those with keys know what’s in my chest.’ ‘Amelie’ bears a similar scope but comes from the opposite emotional directional, as Donahue begs the title character to let him through a door on the promise that ‘I’ll break the habit … it’s my last score.’
The recipe of strings, otherworldy choral harmonies and Donahue’s perfectly bittersweet, imploring voice is used and used: on ‘You’ve Gone With So Little For So Long’s mourning of hardship, ‘Emotional Free Fall’s glistening slip into joyous self-pity and ‘Coming Up For Air’s imagining of Donahue as a dolphin. ‘Central Park East’ is both striking and just a little parodic to those who are familiar with this band, with the singer imploring in ‘why me?’ tones, ‘am I the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park?’ Yet he means that sadness, and it connects.
And then, two thirds of the way through the album, the usual script is torn up just as it’s starting to get stale. ‘Are You Ready?’ is part beat group, part John Barry, half-remembered as if through a dream, with Donahue yearning for ‘psychedelic rock and blue-eyed soul’. ‘Sunflower’ comes out of nowhere, a hollering, thundering slab of euphoric car chase funk, and the closing ‘Rainy Day Record’ gives evangelical praise to the healing power of music, name-checking favourites (Thurston Moore, Procol Harum, Dream Syndicate … no Kermit) and bustling like James Taylor with added sitar and raps. It is, like various points on this record, resoundingly lovely, although it would have been nice to hear them step outside themselves in such a manner more often.
The Light in You is out now on Bella Union.