Deserter's Songs

Contrary to popular opinion, not every version of the American Dream revolves around attaining planet-flattening power, huge embezzled wealth and a line of willing cocksuckers outside the office door.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION, not every version of the American Dream revolves around attaining planet-flattening power, huge embezzled wealth and a line of willing cocksuckers outside the office door. There is another equally pervasive, but infinitely more romantic, fantasy that is predicated by the idea of escape, of fleeing the city and making your own kingdom in America's wide open spaces; a desperate spiritual rush into the wilderness and freedom.

It's a dream which, translated into Manifest Destiny, propelled European settlers westward across a new continent until they fell into the Pacific or else stayed on the brink, lost their minds and invented California. And it's a dream which lies at the heart of 'Deserter's Songs', Mercury Rev's remarkable fourth album. "Bands/Those funny little plans/That never work quite right", sighs Jonathan Donahue at the end of the opening 'Holes', before making a heroic, despairing break for it.

With his relationships a tangled mess and his band fragmenting around him, 'Deserter's Songs' is Donahue's document of escape: music of shameless grandiosity that plays out personal crises on an enormous scale, peppered with images of vast wet skies and thrashing oceans, of highways and railroad tracks stretching out to the event horizon.

Mercury Rev have always striven for this kind of deeply evocative sound, though their vision has often been obscured by billowing, unstable psychedelia. Now Donahue's gifts are clearer and less fractious, locked into a cosmic American heritage which precedes, runs parallel and - just occasionally - intertwines with the history of rock'n'roll. So 'Deserter's Songs' harks back to the proud symphonies of Aaron Copland, eccentric curators of indigenous music like Van Dyke Parks and inspirational roots manglers The Band more than contemporaries like Spiritualized, whom the Rev have been compared to in the past.

Indeed, two of The Band are let loose on the rattling 'Hudson Line' and 'Opus 40', the latter a worthy companion piece to 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'. Donahue and his co-conspirators' greatest trick here, though, is to place their group as the next step in a long tradition rather than as mere sepia-tinted nostalgists: exactly how the musical saw solos, saccharine choirs and generous steals from 'Silent Night' that constitute 'Endlessly' add up to being a moving and even radical piece is one of 1998's more bewitching rock mysteries.

'The Funny Bird', meanwhile, is breathtaking in scope and heartbreaking in detail, as Donahue makes his farewells, a tiny voice amid elemental swells of orchestrated sound and the album's one searing guitar blast. Only 'Tonite It Shows' is remotely urbane, summoning up chivalrous passions and twinkling downtown lights with the panache of a post-tripping Gershwin.

But it's back on the frontier that 'Deserter's Songs' is at its most transcendental. "That big blue open sea/That can't be crossed/That can't be climbed", sings an awe-filled Donahue on 'Holes', grasping a sense of the near-infinite possibilities of where to lose himself in this massive and beautiful country, understanding that music can be epic in conception and practice without being pompous, or faux-mystical, or bloated by platitudes and clichis. This time, the map reference for the Big Music has been located and celebrated by Mercury Rev. And the result? A modern classic.
9 / 10

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