t took me a long time to figure out exactly what was wrong with All Is Dream. I mean, all the pieces seemed to be in place, right? The intricate melodies; the dreamy, poetic lyrics; the meandering, open-ended arrangements; Jonathan Donahue's brittle voice; and to top it all off, Dave Fridmann's by-now signature orchestrations which, believe me, are exceedingly difficult to describe without resorting to the word "lush". (See? I just did.)
What was missing was Deserter's Songs's vague dusting of Americana, rooting Donahue's quivering airs in a more earthy setting. Think of Levon Helm's folksy drumming on "Opus 40", the saxophones and singing saws, the grainy sheen of the instrumental cuts. Once set free from their moorings, the songs seemed to flutter about without direction. The jarring tempo shifts in the opening track gave it away right off the bat: the arrangements seemed at odds with the songs themselves.
At the time I chalked Deserter's up as a fluke, an accidental masterpiece from a twisted artistic journey. The Rev had veered all over the stylistic map before, and would probably continue to do so. Having heard The Secret Migration, my view of Dream has drastically changed. Migration is likely to be hailed by most as a return to form, as though Dream were a misstep and Migration is the logical successor to Deserter's, but I don't believe that's the case. (Of course, I could also be completely wrong about how others view the album, but stay with me here.) With the perspective of Migration, Dream now seems a transitional album, an attempt to develop a new approach which finally succeeds on Migration.
The songs remain untethered here: there's no attempt to recapture the rootsy feel of Deserter's. The difference is that the band has learned to fly, to soar even, with their new sound, and no longer seems to confused by the novelty of their wings. (Forgive the prose, but when you hear it you'll see why; this music is very difficult to write about without getting a bit flowery.) Where the aforementioned tempo shifts seemed uncertain, when the piano slows down for a descending riff following the chorus of Migration's opener, the effect is confident, self-assured and thoroughly at ease within the course of the song.
While the album is already available in most countries, for some reason it won't be released in the U.S. until May(!), a seemingly suicidal move from a commercial standpoint in the age of file-sharing. However, it's being made available in three parts for purchasable download through iTunes and the like (the second part comes out this week), so I'm considering it in three parts here. It's actually quite a bit easier to digest that way.
The first four songs, which have been available for about a month now, are all pomp and grandeur, a series of dramatic gestures and brightly-coloured instrumental flourishes. The atmosphere is created mostly with pianos and organs, less so the strings of the past few albums. Melodies and counterpoints are entwined throughout the mix, grounded by the swagger of Fridmann's surprisingly muscular basslines. "Across Yer Ocean" is the best cut here, a perfect blend of yearning lyricism with a rising melody line that seems to stretch for something just out of reach. The clean, carefully-selected notes of guitarist Grasshopper, such a key element on Deserter's, are for the most part played down for the first few songs, but his solo on "Black Forest (Lorelei)" makes the wait worthwhile, as he follows the song's convoluted chord changes with tasteful elegance.
The next four songs (I'm guessing on the division between parts two and three) introduce an increased urgency in the rhythm section. "Vermillion" opens with a gentle piano line before the band enters in double-time and pushes the intensity up for the next few songs before dropping back dramatically for the swooning ballad "My Love".
The final five songs make up the most subtly ambitious and wildly varied segment. Bookended by a pair of beautiful fragments, "Move On" and "Down Poured the Heavens", the songs neatly wrap up the album's themes of searching for and finding love while wisely avoiding the temptations of the lengthy epic or the bombastic closing number. Instead the album gradually drifts to a close like the tide going out, settling down into a pair of gentle piano ballads after a final burst of uptempo energy on "Arise".
While Donahue's lyrical muse feeds him the occasional clunker, for the most part his words perfectly match the music's open-hearted depth, and his few missteps serve to remind how Mercury Rev is able to painstakingly craft such a wondrous and tender sound: they aren't afraid of being fools. Without relying on a crutch of irony and cynicism, they boldly risk sounding cloying in order to summon the emotional honesty necessary to create music that is unabashedly romantic and achingly beautiful.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-03-09