New York’s Mercury Rev specialize in exploring the possibilities inherent within a song. Their earliest records highlighted a band willing to explore noise with melody. After two albums frontman David Baker left and Jonathan Donahue took the reins. 1995’s See You On The Other Side found the band transitioning from noise-rock into something much more sublime. 1997’s Deserter’s Songs offered up a mix of hazy numbers drenched in psychedelic Americana. Internally, the band had little hopes for it. Yet when released, the album became a surprise international hit. That success allowed more leeway for their next record, and they did just that for 2001’s cinematic magnum opus All Is Dream. In a cruel twist of fate, the release date happened to be September 11th. After a little time to readjust, the album received the recognition it deserved, becoming what many feel to be the band’s finest hour.
Which brings us to 2005’s The Secret Migration, the band’s sixth album. One commends Donahue and longtime partner Grasshopper for wanting each listening experience to differ from what came before it. Deserter’s offers a beaten-down band wandering towards something grander. All Is Dream presents the listener with an orchestral smorgasbord of technicolor delights. The Secret Migration pairs that back and offers up a baker’s dozen songs performed by a smaller band. It isn’t Deserter’s, and it isn’t All Is Dream. From the opening rush of “Secret For A Song,” it’s clear that they’ve traded in immersive musical arrangements, allowing the lyrical content to be the focus of the song. A bold move, but a wise one. Mercury Rev retained its trademark sound whilst exploring new sonic territory.
Listening to the demos and snippets offered on disc three of this five-disc set, a “less-is-more” approach appeared from the get-go. Even in demo form—by nature stripped down and minimal—songs like “Vermillion’ and “Down Poured The Heavens” didn’t change all that much. The only major difference from creation to completion is the excising of the roots-rock feel. With a little Neil Young here, a little John Fahey there, although these recordings might be more suited for the hardcore Mercury Rev fan, but this disc stands as a fine glimpse into the birth of The Secret Migration.
Though The Secret Migration may have suffered from lackluster reviews and commercial indifference, that doesn’t diminish its quality. This time, the piano takes the forefront this time around, thanks to the increased role of Jeff Mercel. The first six songs stand as some of the band’s finest material, both before and after; all have become setlist standards, and rightly so. Listening to “Across Yer Ocean” and “In A Funny Way,” the songs still retain the same exciting shine as they did fifteen years ago, while the second half of the album offers seven beautiful, shorter numbers. (I will forever have a soft spot for album closer “Down Poured The Heavens,” as I chose it for my soulmate’s funeral service.) Ultimately. The Secret Migration isn’t really that radically different. If anything, it feels like the natural progression of the path forged by its three predecessors.
Much like the All Is Dream deluxe reissue, this edition of The Secret Migration offers a trove of goodies. Alongside the demos disc, the set includes one disc of b-sides and outtakes. On offer are fine covers of tunes by Bobby Charles, Nico, Paul Williams, and two Paul Westerberg numbers—one by The Replacements, and one solo. The five outtakes simply sparkle; one wonders why “Look At Brutus With His Knife” and “The Alchemy Of Lovers” were allowed to gather dust in the vault. The fourth disc offers up the album in live form. Surprisingly, The Secret Migration‘s songs transitioned nicely from studio to stage. one wonders if that transition motviated the reason for the less complex arrangements.
But if you miss the grand orchestral sounds of All Is Dream, then the fifth disc, Hello Blackbird, will whet your whistle; it’s the all-instrumental score to Robinson Savary’s film Bye Bye Blackbird. Consisting of shorter incidental pieces and longer, more fleshed out numbers, Hello Blackbird offered a cohesive, immersive listening experience. Furthermore, it also brought to light Mercury Rev’s less-documented live soundtrack work. Although low-key, Hello Blackbird proved a nice accompaniment for those disappointed with The Secret Migration.
So what happened? Why, for all of the album’s high quality material, did the album come and go without much notice?
Unfortunately, The Secret Migration’s fate lies not with Mercury Rev as a band, the stripped-down production, or the songs themselves. No, what doomed it was timing. By this point, piano-laden melancholia overwhelmed modern rock. Thanks to the popularity of bands like Coldplay, Travis, The Fray, and Keane, suddenly Mercury Rev found themselves with rivals. Worse than that, for those not aware of the band, one might mistake them for trend-chasers. Unfairly, The Secret Migration should have been recognized for its merits and not dismissed as Coldplay-like. Yes, upon release, no one can control the reception or perception.
When Donahue speaks of The Secret Migration, one hears a tinge of sorrow. That’s unfortunate, because the album deserved better. Mercury Rev at their most sublime. This new box set only proves the point, and offers the Mercury Rev fan a cache of fantastic music. Hopefully, this set will give the world another chance to hear one of Mercury Rev’s finest hours.
Purchase Mercury Rev The Secret Migration: Cherry Red
Purchase Mercury Rev Hello Blackbird: Cherry Red