The story of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs is improbable in so many ways. It stretches the limit of credulity just to recount the saga.
A group famous for its chaotic, explosive live shows — they were famously kicked off the Lollapalooza tour for being too loud — skulks off to upstate New York, label-less, drummer-less, drug-addled, and cash-starved, then records an album of warm, gossamer-thin songs that derive their inspiration from Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin.
Squalling guitar solos are traded in for flutes and flugelhorns. Epic, 10-minute jams are swapped for wordless one-minute rejoinders. Nihilistic, irreverent lyrics are replaced by searching, plaintive words. Mercury Rev dies. Mercury Rev is born again.
Even more improbable than this dramatic creative reinvention is how fans and critics rapturously take to the album, providing a second chance for a group resigned to drift back into anonymity.
“We really thought it was our swan song — that it was kind of the last thing we would ever do,” says guitarist Sean Mackowiak, who goes by the nom de plume Grasshopper. “We went in with that kind of mentality. We were just gonna do what we want and make a cool record that we love. We didn’t really expect anybody to listen.”
Two decades removed from the miraculous, career-saving masterpiece, Deserter’s Songs is still hailed as a visionary album, and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this unlikely magnum opus, Mercury Rev will play the record in full on its current tour, which includes a stop at The Chapel on Tuesday, Oct. 16.
To be fair, Deserter’s Songs was not the first genuine attempt at a restart for the group. Following the departure of barrel-voiced singer David Baker, whose caterwauling cackles energized the group’s first two neo-psychedelic, shoegaze albums, Yerself Is Steam and Boces — each a classic in its own right — Mercury Rev released See You on the Other Side, the band’s first production to feature Jonathan Donahue on lead vocals.
That album — which still retained much of the group’s free-wheeling histrionics — performed well below expectations, and following its release in 1995, Mercury Rev descended into a self-destructive spiral of drug abuse and interpersonal friction. Despondent over the middling reaction to See You on the Other Side, Grasshopper and Donahue met up with longtime friend and producer extraordinaire Dave Fridmann in 1998 to record what they thought would be the last Mercury Rev album.
Those sessions in Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios proved to be therapeutic in many ways, reviving the musicians’ physical health while helping strengthen the bonds of their friendship.
“We were kind of like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: just trying to make it through everything alive without getting shot down by the law,” says Grasshopper. “Everything was pretty raw at that point. We had sold a bunch of instruments, sometimes for drugs, and we were broke. We didn’t have a lot left except each other. There were times when he was struggling, or I was struggling, but we knew we had to do this thing together.”
That delicate state of affairs is reflected in the album, a creation so fragile and brittle, it feels like it could snap into dust at any moment. The opener, “Holes,” is an atmospheric number, with eerie background noises, symphonic flushes and Donahue’s trembling voice acting as a catalyst for the track. It is a perfect preview for the rest of the album. “Tonite It Shows” has the same warped lullaby sensibilities, as woodwinds and brass instruments mix uneasily with sonic manipulations. “Endlessly” sounds like it could be the background music to a 1940s Disney animation, with its Snow White-like whistling noises and strange string arrangements. “Opus 40,” is a beautifully unique creation, a medley of buoyant keys, enveloping synths, and lifting choir vocals.
Scattered across the album are wordless palate cleansers, like “I Collect Coins,” with its liquidy toy-piano emanations, and “Pick up if You’re There,” a Wurlitzer-heavy number that feels like it was plucked off an ancient gramophone.
The centerpiece of the album is “Goddess on a Hiway,” a driving number with a soaring chorus and the closest thing Deserter’s Songs has to a conventional pop song. Donahue originally wrote the song years ago, when he was a member of the Flaming Lips, but he was reluctant to use it for Deserter’s Songs.
“Jonathan sent me that song when he was living in Oklahoma and I immediately loved it,” Grasshopper says. “I always kept bugging him about recording that album and he finally relented. I’m so glad, because I think that song, in particular, fits well with the themes of Deserter’s Songs.”
While the ethereal and whimsical sonic makeup of the album first gained attention, Grasshopper thinks the lyrical content of Deserter’s Songs is what elevates the recording into a classic. He and Donahue pen tracks that grapple with addiction, broken relationships, and feelings of isolation. On “The Funny Bird,” Donahue captures that helplessness in devastating fashion: “Farewell golden sound, no one wants to hear you now / And of all the happy ends, I wouldn’t wish this on a friend.”
Deserter’s Songs has the cumulative sense of a band’s life work, a fearless compendium unaffected by popular opinion or prevailing trends. (Remember, this album came out at the height of Britpop and Prodigy-fueled electronica.) As Grasshopper says, it was a swan song: a glorious coda for a band determined to leave on their own terms. The world they built crumbled around them, but Mercury Rev survived, with pride intact.
But they did more than survive. They flourished. People are still clamoring for Deserter’s Songs long after its release. (The original concept for the full album live performances came at the behest of Desert Daze, a Southern California music festival in early October.) When music publications trot out their collections of the best albums of the ’90s, Deserter’s Songs routinely finds a place on those lofty lists.
You cannot make this stuff up. Iit is the DNA of fairy tales — which is fitting, since on the whole, Deserter’s Songs feels made to soundtrack a macabre Grimm Brother’s saga. Like those 19th-century German progenitors, Mercury Rev savor the unconventional aspects of life, but not even Grasshopper and Donahue could have scripted a better tale of their redemption.
“This album gave us new life,” Grasshopper says. “It will always be special to us for that reason. We wouldn’t be here today without Deserter’s Songs.”
Mercury Rev with Marissa Nadler, Tuesday, Oct. 16, at The Chapel, 777 Valencia St. $30-$32, thechapelsf.com