When [a]Mercury Rev[/a]
astonished the world with the imaginative scale of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ in 1998, frontman songwriter Jonathan Donahue was seemingly poised between star-crossed reality and a seductive dreamworld. That album’s orchestrally swaddled yearning took place at least partially above ground, beneath the twinkling stars and falling leaves of the band’s home in the Catskill Mountains. Coming to write the new songs after a year of scrutiny and solid touring,
Donahue appears to have drifted far deeper into the gargoyled labyrinth of his own mind. ‘All Is Dream’ rarely surfaces from the magic cavern of his imagination, a place crammed with snakes and spiders, books on Greek mythology and shadowy ex-lovers.
Perhaps ironically, opening track ‘The Dark Is Rising’ commences with booming timpani and Western movie strings. But then comes the lonesome piano and Donahue’s uniquely odd pixie-man voice, beckoning us into reveries of evanescent love and stairs that lead nowhere.
Though guitarist Grasshopper and bassist Dave Fridmann propel the bass-driven stringscape of ‘Little Rhymes’ and sound briefly like a ‘rock’ band on the serpents and sirens tale ‘You’re My Queen’ and the slinky ‘Tides Of The Moon’, this is mostly an album of meticulously arranged set pieces, helped out sporadically by ’60s and ’70s Bowie/Bolan producer Tony Visconti, but effectively conjured up by the cracked and florid genius of Donahue.
By ‘Lincoln’s Eyes’ we’re swirling in a vortex of sopranos, violins, musical theatre and a phantasmagorical menagerie of fangs, sharks, amoebas, Jesus and ancient Hindu texts. The catgut pop of ‘Nite And Fog’ also summons up the odd spider and vampire while ‘A Drop In Time’ has a scary Steven Sondheim-ish arrangement of plucked violas.
At times ‘All Is Dream’ makes ‘Deserter’s Songs’ seem like a dress rehearsal. Sure there are preposterous moments – sometimes psalms and spells and precious rings do add up to Tolkien Rock. But as the wig-out finale ‘Hercules’ proves, they can do majestic, outdoor American guitar band stuff half-asleep.
What would you rather? Another wodge of rap-metal… or a haze of fairy dust from crazy pixies with delusions of grandeur?