A soundtrack for all your favorite silent films

By Chris Seet

Nobody gets excited by soundtracks anymore. Being mostly compilations of flavor-of-the-month pop and overplayed radio singles, it’s no surprise. Hardly ever does a good, genuinely creative score arouse any attention; the type that tells a story, plunges you into a weird mood or strange, bygone era; and reeks of old, sentimental bastards trying to stir up the dust in your attic a bit, for old time’s sake. It’s strange, therefore, that the self-appointed curators of what’s left of the genre should be a pop band with a dodgy history and penchant for psychedelic road music.

Mercury Rev found their calling with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, a fine pop album but, more noticeable, a thickly textured sequence of snapshots of Modern America. It was a major release, worn like a badge by many musicians and commentators, this acid-trip ode to an imagined past.

Love it or hate it, Mercury Rev was important at least in opening the flood gates for astral-tinged, atmospheric pop. Flaming Lips, Mogwai, and the Delgados were but a few bands to share producers with Mercury Rev, and release albums in the wake of Deserter’s Songs. Now that the genre has been well-explored, Mercury Rev is free to resume its own musical course, and as far as this new album indicates, the direction is a distillation of the stranger, lonelier aspects of Deserter’s Songs. It’s a faithful and worthy follow-up, continuous in many ways, but as a whole less accessible, receding even further into the depths of musical obliqueness.

In a way, All is Dream is also a eulogy, a tribute to a dead man. Jack Nitzsche, the legendary arranger and some-time Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, and Phil Spector collaborator, died shortly before entering the studio with the band to work on what was to become All is Dream. As the story goes, Nitzsche picked up Deserter’s Songs, and was reminded of an old pop ideal—a sound it seemed he had been pursuing to little avail ever since the ship of musical progress left him behind somewhere between the ‘60s and ‘70s. Nitzsche, recorder of more than forty obscure soundtracks, was looking for the cinematic or, more precisely, the timelessness of the cinematic, and apparently found it in the wiry, on-the-road musings of Mercury Rev. When Nitzsche died though, it looked as if he would take the last vestige of this anachronistic ideal with him to the grave; but, as can be seen on All is Dream, it was to be picked up and championed—relentlessly—by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue.

If Mercury Rev were thematic, cinematic, or conceptual before, they are unashamedly so now. Much as Deserter’s Songs was a Modernist sail down the Hudson River, All is Dream is astral, somnambulant. It still sketches a picture through the music’s mood, but the picture this time is less defined, more abstract; scrambled up in the static. The album’s “pop singles” are less immediate, the soundtrack-quality of the music is foremost: stronger, more opulent. Guitars flail out into an echoing expanse of space, heavy strings saw and rise, and stylized operatic vocals wail along to the tune. It’s definitely a soundtrack—to what, though, we’re not quite sure.

Deserter’s Songs had purpose. It was that road trip you took with nothing but a Polaroid and a box of Neil Young tapes. It reeked of long, lonely Interstates, the glowing Catskills, and grainy motion pictures. All is Dream is like a tear in that road through which you can see a whole universe of comets and galaxies, right before you turn away and question what was ever real to begin with. The brooding track “Lincoln’s Eyes” still seeks out dusty America, buried under piles of 78s and bakelite lampshades, but even now there is strain, an acknowledgement that time passes, and all we can do is sit by and bitterly lament it.

“A Drop in Time” is a strange tune. “But I was struck, like a fleeting thought, stuck inside Leonard Cohen’s mind,” it goes, and as much can be said for Donahue’s sentimental, bittersweet lyrics. Even the melody is reminiscent of early Cohen songs like “So Long Maryanne” or “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”—tuneful and misleadingly carefree. But Mercury Rev’s instrumentation is flamboyant: It’s a piece that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in a stage show, the cast breaking out into spontaneous song to, complete with bobbing umbrellas, pizzicato strings, and falsetto men. The sheer gaiety (in the traditional sense) of songs like this may be off-putting and garish, but it does fit into the big picture… somewhere.

The rest of the album is less whimsical, though not by a lot. Donahue approaches new heights of falsetto, as if trying to one-up Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys. On longing, lonely tracks such as “Little Rhymes,” it works; on others, you begins to beg for a break in the soaring, wailing, male vocals. Those are the pulsing, acid-type songs that remind us that Mercury Rev’s roots lie in a little-appreciated psychedelic corner of ‘90s grunge.

The crafted detail on the album is admirable; Donahue talks often of the exhaustion of creating a sound starting with only a vague idea of what it should sound like. Conceived, as Donahue says, largely in the early hours of the morning, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, All is Dream is a concept album difficult in both its approach and realization. Like the many fine albums produced by David Fridmann though (The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, The Delgados’ The Great Eastern and, of course, Deserter’s Songs to name a recent trilogy) All is Dream is sweet, refreshing, and with a grandiose production. Distorted, vintage-microphone vocals are everywhere, and a larger-than-life string arrangement smoothes all sharp corners, which may or may not be a good thing, but it works.

At their worst, Mercury Rev may be called producers of eclectic mood music by their critics. They sway so far to the left of the pop center, and yet are still released alongside their peers that listeners either love them—for making something daringly offbeat—or hate them, for making wishy-washy old-man music that is downright strange. Either way, you have to admire a band that aims to tear down not only genre, but generation boundaries. It’s the timelessness that Nitzsche was looking for, and listening to the album, you get a pretty good impression that this sort of music will persist, indefinitely, like a creepy old movie.