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. The Flaming Lips subsequently moved in curious sidesteps, becoming ever quirkier and more obtuse. There has been a discernible narrative arc to their work, even if it has not always yielded positive results.
Mercury Rev, however, struggled to define a post-Deserter’s Songs sound. All Is Dream occasionally grasped for a more muscular sound, but became absorbed with its own myth making and pomp. The Secret Migration had some highlights but also seemed to offer only diminishing returns melodically, whilst Snowflake Midnight amplified all of the band’s less appealing characteristics – tweeness, naivety and a childlike, saccharine imagination.
Their first album in seven years, and, with Dave Fridmann unavailable, now self-produced, The Light In You may be Mercury Rev’s first post-Deserter’s Songs album that speaks on its own terms. It still retains some of their most familiar tropes – lush arrangements and intriguing instrumentation (chiming bells and glockenspiels everywhere, a cascading vibraphone on Emotional Free Fall, what sound like harpsichord and cor anglais on the sensual and evocative Autumn’s In The Air), with Jonathan Donahue’s naive approach to melody and vocal delivery still firmly in the foreground (most notably on the delightful You’ve Gone With So Little For So Long).
Yet Mercury Rev also strive to avoid the obvious. The music is delivered with considerably more subtlety and deftness than on its immediate predecessors, with an emphasis more on colour and texture than on manipulation. A song such as Amelie works through exercising considerable restraint. It often feels as if it is about to erupt, but Donahue and his longstanding friend and colleague Grasshopper continually hold back.
At times, it’s easy to hear a feedback loop between Mercury Rev and other bands they no doubt influenced. Are You Ready? and Amelie sound melodically reminiscent of Mew, whilst Coming Up For Air has some airy backing vocals that sound like something Sufjan Stevens might try. Donahue’s lyrics continue to explore the natural and supernatural worlds – from the impact of loss and the passing of time, to explorations of surreal, fairytale worlds. The music has an evocative sense of illusion and mystery that neatly complements Donahue’s preoccupations.
The Light In You takes some particularly surprising twists and turns towards its end, not least the delicious northern soul pastiche of Rainy Day Record, which allies Donahue’s fragile vocal to an accompaniment of considerable energy and drive. Much less successful is Sunflower, which feels a little like some sort of contractual obligation to rock out. It sounds particularly awkward and out of place in otherwise more elaborate and lush company.
Whilst nothing on The Light Of You is quite as sumptuous or ornate as the best moments on Deserter’s Songs, it does demonstrate that Mercury Rev are a band still able to engage the senses. They are also a band still willing to challenge themselves and surprise their audience. It’s surprisingly easy to take that for granted.