Release Date: Oct 2, 2015
Record label: Bella Union
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Dream Pop, Neo-Psychedelia
Through the years, Mercury Rev's music has always had a sense of wonder, but it has rarely sounded as purposeful as it does on The Light in You, Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper's first album since 2008's gently introspective Snowflake Midnight. During the seven years between these albums, the duo experienced some major life changes and challenges, and emerged with some of their most powerful music yet. Though this is the first Mercury Rev album missing longtime collaborator Dave Fridmann's input, The Light in You is just as lavish as their work with him.
The Light in You’s title signals Mercury Rev’s intention: their first album for seven years appears to be about redemption, featuring as it does songs about shedding bad habits (Amelie) and confronting unhappiness (Central Park East). Sometimes the redemption is in the arrangements, such as the swell into the festival-sunset chorus of You’ve Gone With So Little for So Long. The lyrics might be clunky: Autumn in the Air sounds like it’s trying to be one of those beauteous, sad ballads Sinatra would sing in his 60s, but Frank would have thrown away a lyric sheet that asked him to compare the autumn skies to being in “Beatle George’s mind”.
We've been here before, countless times. A band whose heyday was a generation ago returns, sounding just as they did 15-20 years ago and dropping an evocation of just how wonderful that music we always loved was. This though, proves a double-edged sword as we realize that their music proved too influential and that every B-list indie band today has caught them up and made a career out of sounding like them.
Millennial tension brought in a raft of major American albums, many of which still stand as great works today, and which their creators subsequently struggled to follow. Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump perfectly captured their combination of primitive technology and humanism, whilst The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs (both produced by Dave Fridmann) offered kaleidoscopic intensity and vivid, dreamlike musical illustrations of their themes. Both were bands in their prime, unafraid to be ambitious, elegant or even grandiose.
It’s been seven years since Mercury Rev's last album, and even by this long-suffering band’s standards, the ensuing period was tumultuous. When we last heard from them, they seemed to be tentatively stepping away from their Catskills-scaled orchestro-rock on 2008’s Snowflake Midnight and its ambient companion piece Strange Attractors. And more recently, they revisited their avant-garde film-school roots, performing live improvized soundtracks to screenings as the Cinematic Sound Tettix BrainWave Concerto Experiment.
Seven years on from their last album, it seems that Mercury Rev are finally beginning to emerge from the shadow that Deserter’s Songs has cast over their career. These things are always relative of course, but the unprecedented acclaim and album of the year awards that were aimed at that record back in 1998 does seem to have affected Mercury Rev massively. Beforehand they were hanging together by a thread, frazzled and on the verge of a break-up; after somehow pulling that album together they never really managed to follow it up with anything that delved into that particular well of rootsy Americana magic with as much power.
The last time we heard from Mercury Rev, they had simultaneously dropped two albums in our laps. The release of their 2008 album Snowflake Midnight was accompanied by an all-instrumental companion album called Strange Attractor. We should have taken the hint that these two albums were supposed to tide us over for a rather long time because Mercury Rev wouldn’t emerge until seven years later with the self-recorded and self-produced The Light in You.
Having long ago jettisoned the brilliant unpredictability that marked their earlier albums, Mercury Rev’s career arc has been the victim of diminishing returns since 1998’s Deserter’s Songs. The Light in You, their first in seven years, starts in familiar fashion, Jonathan Donahue’s fragile vocals swaddled in lushly tinkling and twinkling sleigh bells, the delicate songs quickly exposing the thin line between pretty and cloying. However, salvation arrives with the euphoric chorus of Are You Ready?, swiftly followed by Sunflower’s easygoing pop charms.
While the years since 2008’s Snowflake Midnight represent the longest break between albums in the quarter-century that Mercury Rev have been together, the band certainly haven’t been idle. The break has seen the debut of their marvellously named improv collective, Mercury Rev’s Cinematic Sound Tettix BrainWave Concerto Experiment, while a best-of release and bells-and-whistles reissue of their most beloved album, Deserter’s Songs, has offered both band and fans a chance to reflect. The triumphant gigs that centered around that 2011 reissue appear to have given the band a new lease of life.
Dolphins swimming, swans crooning their final song, moths flying towards the light. For their eighth full-length studio effort, Mercury Rev have amassed an impressive arsenal of metaphorical fauna. Elegance and delicacy seem to be the intended effect, as well as intelligence, both innate and hard-won with time (aside from "all the [other] dolphins out there swimming" on 'Coming Up For Air', 'Central Park East' makes reference to an encounter with a "wise old horse with scars").
In many ways, Mercury Rev is at heart a tale of two love stories. The first is between its main protagonists, singer Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper, the two constants throughout the band’s career. The second is their mutual love of music. The Light In You combines both subtexts quite beautifully.