September 11th, 2001 is a day permanently etched into the minds of Americans. Ask any adult where they were that day, and you’ll surely get an answer. They’ll tell you of the tragedy, the fear, and the uncertainty that hung in the air. For this writer, time stood still, every minute lasted hours, fearfully awaiting the next shoe to drop, the next horror. That afternoon, glued to the television and the internet, seemed endless. Yet life continued on. I opened my mailbox, finding the newest album from Mercury Rev, All Is Dream. That night, I turned off the television, the internet, and the lights in my bedroom and I allowed myself to melt into the album’s grooves, a balm from the pain the world was feeling. Cherry Red’s recent exhaustive four-disc set highlights that album’s greatness and serves as a superb archival document.
All Is Dream’s release came with high expectations. Though their career had been more about critical acclaim than commercial success, their previous album, Deserter’s Songs, surprised everyone—including the band—by unexpected commercial and critical success. The band’s intention had been to release the album—which they had no expectations for—and quietly break up after a final tour. They weren’t prepared for the acclaim, but they welcomed it; now that they had the world’s interest, they felt reinvigorated, ready to take on the world. If anything, they now had more pressure than before to succeed. Thus, they holed up in their familiar Tarbox studios with producer Dave Fridmann to begin working diligently on a highly awaited follow-up and spent a great deal of time and hard work trying to make a record worthy of the anticipation.
Their hard work paid off. From the first notes of the foreboding “The Dark Is Rising,” Mercury Rev pummel the listener with grand orchestra sweeps tempered with delicate piano and the angelic voice of Jonathan Donahue rising above the fray. Each of the nine songs that follow fit a formula Donahue once described to me as “capturing the innocence and wonder of a Disney musical with the potency and power of a rock show.”
All Is Dream certainly does straddle that line. The delicate wonder of “Little Rhymes” and “Spiders And Flies” flow nicely with the sophisticated rock of “Chains” and “You’re My Queen” without ever losing a beat. The album’s two epic numbers, “Lincoln’s Eyes” and album closer “Hercules,” go from soft and tender to loud and bombastic by song’s end, to fantastic effect. But the album’s most endearing and enduring number is “A Drop In Time,” a gorgeous love song that sounds like vintage Disney tempered with lyrics on a par with Song Of Solomon.
The three discs of bonus material offers a wealth of fantastic music. Though it might not offer much insight into the creative process, they do nicely enhance All Is Dream. The first disc contains Peel Sessions, B-Sides, demos, and several unreleased songs. The unreleased material is fantastic, but it’s easy to understand why they didn’t make the cut. Though superb, “Silver And Gold” and “The Brook Room” sonically would have been a better fit on Deserter’s Songs. One wonders if perhaps the band might have realized they were making Deserter’s Song Volume II and wisely backed away. Only the dreamy lullaby “Cool Waters” sounds like it should have made the final cut.
The b-sides are also superb; they consist of a handful of well-chosen covers that reveal much about the band’s influences, ranging from Black Sabbath (“Planet Caravan”), John Cale (“I Keep A Close Watch”) to The Beatles (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”) and Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies”), as well as classical Americana (“Streets Of Laredo”). They’ve always had a way with a cover; the de facto covers album on disc two could easily stand alone.
The two discs of live recordings on discs three and four highlight the band’s live power during this era. The first disc recreates the album drawn from recordings made during the All Is Dream touring cycle. The second disc, the band’s Black Session from August 2001, splits its setlist between the new album and Deserter’s Songs. Both sets demonstrate All Is Dream coming to life and growing into something new in front of a live audience.
September 11th obscured All Is Dream’s release; time has since revealed it to be a masterpiece. Listening to the album that dark night, I thought it one of the most beautiful albums I’d ever heard. I’ve never wavered in that opinion, and this set only confirms my belief. All Is Dream remains both a masterpiece for Mercury Rev and one of the greatest albums ever made, bar none.
Purchase Mercury Rev All Is Dream: Amazon / Cherry Red