Review Summary: A forgotten? great work of pop
Mercury Rev is an amazing band. They were part of the original dream pop wave of the late 80's but had a wicked knack for the noisier side of the style that other bands avoided. They continued recording one great album after the other for some years, apparently unnoticed by everyone except Flaming Lips fans. Their sound evolved, never lost its quality; only the uber distorted chaos was gone. On this conditions "Deserter's Songs" was released and Mercury Rev finally got the recognition they deserved.
But before "Deserter's...", the music was total freedom.
Imagine a perfect spring afternoon in the countryside: bright blue sky, fields of sunflowers, maybe a very sleepy river, a group of cows under a tree, nothing to worry about, except to lazily lie on the fresh grass and play the guitar all day long with your friends. Imagine all that while on acid. That's how the first half of "Yerself is Steam" sounds: like a beautiful but really strange trip far away from the city. In this scenario, moods change, temperature changes, but the environment is the same.
The general feeling recalls in equal parts Spiritualized's "Lazer Guided Melodies" and Pink Floyds's "Dark Side of the Moon". Catchy and poppy melodies float under layers of noise and distortion while an acoustic guitar distractedly provides a basis to the songs; like an anchor that keeps you somewhat linked to reality while your head forwards into the sounds and reaches up to touch the few clouds. Colors rush in front of your eyes and tiny insects may even start covering you, but it won't matter, since the music is so bright and exciting.
Honestly, I don't know who played which guitars, but I'll assume both Jonathan and Grasshopper did equal parts of the work. They manage to create dense soundscapes without ever making the listener feel claustrophobic, and the simple, effect-drenched leads make a perfect companion for David Barker's vocals, like a second voice over the noisy waves. Barker signs clearly, usually using his normal voice, although in some cases he uses a more affected one, like on Blue and Black
; oddly, his voice is perfectly hearable through the rest of the instruments. Other instruments like pianos and even flutes are thrown in in a good measure over the 8 songs that make this album.
Apart from the guitar produced feedback and distortion, sometimes a very creepy and different kind of artificially produced noise invades in the middle of a song (around 3 minutes into Chasing a Bee
), making you experience some kind of "bad trip". All in all, the first half is the more upbeat and happy one, wtih the catchier songs and even some punk rock (the intro to Syringe Mouth
). Even the longer songs (Chasing... and Blue...) manage to sound concise and don't try to evoke any sensation of epicness.....
....enter half No. 2
This is were Mercury Rev's sound turns expansive, atmospheric and yes, at times, VERY EPIC. After the first hours of euphorical dancing and singing, the sun begins to set and your acid trip becomes very reflexive; maybe you'll start walking with no direction and just think deeply. Sweet Odyssey of a Cancer...
is just perfect for the purpose, for it's lyrical content is not quite precise about it's meaning:
"onto the ice flow
where the wind starts to move
and the earth will have a flood"
Holly fauxcking sheet. Isn't it, like, one of the best lines ever written" This song and the next, Frittering
, are the central pieces of the album; depending on your mood, you're most likely to interpretate them as PARTS 1 and 2 of SOMETHING. Sweet Odyssey... is the searching, traveling part and Frittering is about loss or sadness/melancholy. The latter is the darkest but calmest song in the album; probably also the best. A minor key chord progression is repeated throughout the song under some ambient noises while David or Jonathan sing/s with something that resembles a quiet desperation. Also, it's were the epicness factor comes into play.
"I've seen you chisel away
Hammer in place always in time
I've seen you chisel away
slow as a glacier makes its way down to the Rhine"
This particular line really got me and reminded me a lot of Bardo Pond's "Lapsed"
After the two impressive central songs, there's nothing much left for the guys of Mercury to do other than relax and jam a while. There's a brief interlude of an S.O.S transmission and an untuned radio before Very Sleepy Rivers
begins. This closer is basically the guitarists improvising over a simple, repeated bassline and a driving drum pattern, while the vocalist tells a "story" about...err...being atracted to a river. Reminded of the Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits are lost in the Forest and....alright.
It's important to remember that this album was released in a year not precisely short of brilliant works (Red House Painter's Down Colourful Hill, Pavement's S&E, Naked City's Grand Guignol) but "Yerself is Steam" deserves more attention, since, in my opinion, it's Mercury's best.