It Was 15 Years Ago Today – Mercury Rev’s “Deserter’s Songs”

How does that old song go?

15 years ago today Mercury Rev released Deserter’s Songs.

Here’s 50 reasons it’s still one of the masterpieces of ’90s rock:

1 The way the album fades in with strings, drawing the listener into a some sort of dream world where nothing is ever quite as it seems.

2 “Time, all th’ long red lines, that take
Control, of all th’ smokelike streams, that flow into yr

3 How each line of “Holes” ends at the beginning of the next (literally the downbeat), winding through riddle-like non-sequiturs that never land where expected. The “meaning” of any part is cloudy, but somehow the imagery adds up to a vivid whole.

4 The layers of instrumentation that build over the course of the first verse of “Holes” (at first bringing to mind the sentimentality of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”).

5 How it continues to build from there…and then builds some more, upwards and onward to “distant gods an’ faded signs...”

6 …and then builds some more into the epic grandeur of the hand saw solo.

7 Yes, a saw – as in the tool used to cut wood – played with a violin bow.  Mercury Rev are far from the only band to make use of the musical saw, but who else makes it the focal point of the first climax of their album’s opening track?  Nobody.

8 After all that building, the instrumentation drops away for the start of the second verse leaving just a keyboard part played with the simplicity of “Imagine” (while the strings and saw linger behind).

9 When Jonathan warbles, “Friends, all those endless ends that can’t be tied, oh they make me laugh and always makes me cry
… it always makes me cry.

10 Well, misty-eyed at any rate.

11 That emotionally evocative trumpet lead and the cymbals splashing behind it (with a mood that would fit a ’50s Miles Davis LP) tugs at the heart-strings as well.

12 “Bands, those funny little plans, that never work quite right.”

13 The ambient waves of strings during “Holes'” long fade-out (like the lyrics before) never quite resolve as expected.
“Divine” defined.

14 How unabashed “Tonite It Shows'” arrangement is – fearing no comparisons to Disney soundtracks.

15 That all the syrup really does add up to a song that is not just sweet, but affecting.

16 “The way you were long before you were a walking civil war/ But you forget where the road goes and tonight it shows.”

17 Extra points for effortlessly name-dropping Cole Porter.

18 The quirky use of wordless female vocals throughout “Endlessly,” especially during the intro.

19 The harp glissando, tinkling keys and flutes on the same song…

20 …and more bowed saw!

21 That “Endlessly” has no refrain (section), but ends every verse line with the word “endlessly.”

22 The imaginary black and white film from the 1930s that “screens” in my head every time I hear “I Collect Coins.”

23 Is that a bassoon on “Opus 40”?

24 “Tears in waves, minds on fire!

25 Levon Helm getting his groove on.

26 “Opus 40’s” organ solo highlighting the Whiter Shade of the Weight.

27 Garth Hudson’s tenor and alto sax on “Hudson Line.”

28 ….that he doesn’t also play soprano sax.

29 The many breaks on “Hudson Line” – guitar, organ, sax etc…

30 Grasshopper’s singing on “Hudson Line” forms a well-placed recess from Jonathan’s vocals with (the instrumental) “The Happy End.”

31 The way the the vocals behind Grasshoper color “Hudson Line.”

32 How cinematic the entire album is, not just the arrangements, but the actual sound of the instruments and recording.

33 The picture of Dave Fridmann on page 11 of the CD booklet.

34 This album was a major moment for Dave defining the scope of his production skills.

35 How despite the many well-worn musical structures the songwriting is steeped in, they always seem fresh, never cliche.

36 Sometimes when something feels right invention is the enemy – just keep repeating what’s working. Case in point: “Goddess On A Hiway’s” fade-out.

36 The mysterious open spaces in “The Funny Bird,” and how it sets up the mood of the entire track.

37 The tight and dynamic drumming in the same song.

38 The prominent counterpoint played by the bass in the same song.

39 The distortion on Jonathan’s vocals in the same song.

40 The guitar tone in the same song.

41 …especially during the TWO epic solos.

41 The backing vocals on the same song…

42…basically everything about “The Funny Bird” is sonic perfection.

43 And then comes its strange ending, drifting off….

44 By the time “Pick Up If You’re There” comes around, the listener has been guided deep into a head space different than where they were at the start of the record. It’s literally a head trip conducted through sound.

45 And at the end of that journey is an old fashioned delta stomp re-designed into some sort of new dance-remix-styled-rock-crackle-pop!

46 “Atlantic’s too specific” – nice pun. (It’s fun to pun and rhyme all the time).

3201815664_d65e57167e_z47 “Wavin’ goodbye I’m not sayin’ hello...”

48 It’s a relief to know the legacy of Schoenberg lives on in an emotional ’90s rock album’s hidden track. And with a sense of humor no less (i.e. the final ten seconds).

49 The creative problem solving and sonic invention this album required of Dave directly impacted the sound of The Flaming Lips at the time. Through the two groups a new branch of indie rock was grown.

50 NME and Uncut both named Deserter’s Songs the 1998 album of the year.  Melody Maker ranked it at #3. Mojo, Q, Wire, Addicted to Noise, Magnet, and others all included it towards the top of their year end lists as well.  This reception paved the way for the warm welcomes like-minded records such as The Soft Bulletin received from critics soon after.  Apparently most American rock critics were confused by it though, even those that praised it.  For instance, read Spin’s 1998 review below:


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