Over recent years, Mercury Rev have concentrated on celebrating their seminal Deserter’s Songs, either performing much of the album with the help of an orchestra or playing stripped back versions of the songs in smaller venues. However, in the background a quite different musical project had been taking shape, namely a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 album The Delta Sweete.
Singer Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper had long held affection for The Delta Sweete and over time had courted the prospect of creating some form of musical tribute, initially just for their own pleasure. Over time this gradually transformed into a fully fledged album release with help from Mercury Rev touring member Jesse Chandler (previously a member of Midlake).
Mercury Rev’s 2015 album The Light In You established their relationship with Bella Union and label boss Simon Raymonde was to prove key in recruiting the incredible cast of singers that appear on The Delta Sweete Revisited. It’s testament to the power and longevity of Gentry’s music that such an array of artists were so keen to be involved. Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price, Susanne Sundfør, Laetitia Sadier, Marissa Nadler, Phoebe Bridgers, Beth Orton, Vashti Bunyan, Kaela Sinclair, Slowdive‘s Rachel Goswell and Carice von Houten all feature over the course of the twelve tracks.
Those familiar with Gentry’s music may find some of the versions a little too removed from the originals, but overall they form a fluid body of songs that sees the respective vocalists project their own style on to each (any preconceived opinions on the singers may also colour listeners’ appreciation also). Okolona River Bottom Band sees Norah Jones add a sultry, seductive polish to the original, while Hope Sandoval’s handling of Big Boss Man is suitably horizontal and smoky. Vashti Bunyan and Kaela Sinclair add a floaty, otherworldly dimension to Penduli Pendulum.
Two of the standout moments come from two of the relatively newer vocalists. Susanne Sundfør has developed a bit of a habit of stealing the show in recent years (most recently at the Scott Walker Prom back in 2017 and last year’s incredible show at the Barbican) and her version of Tobacco Road sees her grab the limelight here also. She helps transform the original into a ravishing, string-laden opus. Phoebe Bridgers’ sweetly-intoned delivery of Jessye’ Lisabeth maintains the sadness of the original but also offers one of the most heartfelt and poignant moments on the album.
The vocalists may naturally attract much of the attention but the contributions from Mercury Rev are just as important. Reunion may see Rachel Goswell contribute vocals but in the background Mercury Rev’s trademark dynamic sonic uplifts are clear for all to see. Similar can be said of Mornin’ Glory which sees an understated grandeur and drama surround Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics. Musical saws are a common sight in Mercury Rev live shows and one makes an appearance here on Refractions which adds to the perturbed-sounding vocals provided by Marissa Nadler. Beth Orton and Lucinda Williams meanwhile bring earthier tones to Courtyard and Ode To Billie Joe respectively. The latter isn’t on the original Bobbie Gentry record, but was too appealing a combination to turn down.
A project this ambitious and so invested with respect for the artist clearly deserves much credit. The arrangements may be cleaner and songs embellished with alternative focuses but it would be hard to claim they don’t have the interests of the originals at heart. Seen as a sensitive collective tribute it’s hard to view it as anything else than a success.