A few years ago I attended a gig at the Zoo in Brisbane. The American band playing was Mercury Rev and the venue was sparsely attended. But those few there got a terrific performance from Jonathan Donahue and his crew and the small crowd lapped it up especially when they played any song from their hallmark album Deserter’s Songs (1998).
I bought that album not long after it came out, most likely on the recommendation from my brother who was also telling about similar great American music being made by bands like Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. Donahue, the founding member of Rev used to be a member of the Lips and his vocal style was not dissimilar to Wayne Coyne. Indeed the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were recording in the same studio at the same time and while Rev produced Deserter’s Songs, the Lips came out with The Soft Bulletin, an album almost as good.
Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1980s Mercury Rev experimented with a psychedelic rock sound on their debut album Yerself is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993). Their third album See You on the Other Side (1995) crashed and burned and the band found themselves deep in debt. Donahue slipped into a deep depression and cut off all communication with his fellow bandmembers. Donahue began listening to albums he loved as a child, including “Tale Spinners for Children” which inspired him to compose simple melodies on a piano. He began to recover and set a new musical direction for Mercury Rev.
Though without a manager, lawyer or label, the band got back together. Deserter’s Songs was written and recorded in the Catskill Mountains (where Donahue grew up) in six months, helped by Catskill residents, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. Donahue admitted the world “wasn’t exactly waiting for another Mercury Rev record” but as the Guardian said the end product was “near flawless, one of those records on which not a second is wasted and every track could be a single”.
The song Holes gets the album off to a terrific start. According to Pop Matters Holes “is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm’s fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder.” Yeah whatever, but great music. Tonite It Shows has Donahue at the top of his power vocally “with spine-tingling power, his voice catching at the edges like a man overcome with the force of memory.”
The next classic on the album is Opus 40, named for a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor Harvey Fite. Keyboardist Adam Snyder told Uncut in 2015: “I remember Jon (Donahue) and I were sitting in a room in Kingston, which is like the gateway to the Catskills. I started tinkering around with a Wurlitzer, and that’s how ‘Opus 40’ was born.” Guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak said it was a place Donahue used to hang out.
Goddess on a Hiway was the first single from the album and a personal favourite. As NME wrote Goddess was “the biggest pop moment of the record, like a Disney theme tune if it had been fucked up by a cult US indie band.” If that doesn’t sound like praise, they concluded: “It still sounds awesome.”
It’s followed by another classic The Funny Bird which as one reviewer (appropriately named Deserter’s Songs) says “takes Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and significantly ups the paranoia levels: Grasshopper wrestling great squalls of unholy terror from his instrument, which seems to dissolve in on itself by the song’s climax.” I agree with that reviewer’s take on the entire album: “It remains full of secrets I can’t begin to fathom, and depths I haven’t even begun to explore. The funny bird still refuses to come to earth.”