Have Mercury Rev relocated to rural England or something? They've gone all pastoral. The undulating soft rock of the opening singles "Secret for a Song" and "Across Yer Ocean" shows they've swapped dusty American desert landscapes for green meadows and hills. Maybe they needed to chill out and take a country holiday after the emotional extremes and musical individualism of "Deserter's Songs" and "All is Dream", but I hope this doesn't mean they're permanently heading for the middle of the road.
The tunes are pretty and shimmeringly produced as ever, but there's only a few traces of that Mercury Rev spark of innovation that littered their previous two albums. Usually they just fall back on those soft Rhodes keyboards and gently tinkling pianos. On "Black Forest (Lorelei)" a rocking Philip Glass piano evolves into a searing guitar solo. But "Vermilion" and especially "In the Wilderness" would have fitted in to any recent U2 album. And the big Motown kettledrums of "In A Funny Way" are just routine nostalgia - this sound was adapted in a more individual way by their chums the Flaming Lips on "Soft Bulletin".
As well as the more pastoral tone of the lyrics, Jon Donahue's vocals have also caught the mellowness bug. Sometimes his fragmentary style even coalesces into something resembling a lyrical croon, as on the navel gazing "My Love". While they've done sensitive piano ballads before, I'd never heard them actually be fluffy until "First Time Mother's Joy". This sugary but strong tune brings to mind Peter Gabriel singing "Don't Give Up". "The Climbing Rose" and the whirling "Arise" increase the tempo and energy for a while to keep us engaged. But the album leaves us with an impression of a band mellowing in their middle age.
May 9, 2005