Bands: Those Funny Little Plans
"Bands," croaks Jonathan Donahue, in his tiny, unsure voice, "those funny little plans." He sings it with equal parts knowing wink, smiling reassurance, and defeated resignation; the sign-off —in the final line on the epic, Deserter's Songs-opening "Holes"— being that bands, and their plans, "never work quite right."
It was meant as an epitaph for the checkered career of Mercury Rev, a Buffalo-born band who had fought through drug abuse, psychological breakdowns, and a failed major-label stint, finally come out the other side, and survived.
The principle members —leader Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Sean 'Grasshopper' Mackiowiak, flautist Suzanne Thorpe, drummer Jimy Chambers, and bassist/producer Dave Fridmann— had fallen out during the troubled making of —and even more troubled touring behind— 1995's See You on the Other Side, and had gotten the band back together for one last waltz.
Like their friends in the Flaming Lips —with whom Donahue and Fridmann had long collaborated— Mercury Rev had been born as veritable noise act, anarchic punks in love with maximalist guitar effects, psychedelics, and chaos. Killer early single "Yerself is Steam" suggested, early on, that a pop-band lurked within, but in the noisy, distorted '90s Mercury Rev managed to sound even noisier, more distorted than the norm; creating a sense of confusion that didn't help sales much.
Dropped by Columbia Records, dumped by their manager, deep in debt and left for dead, Mercury Rev dusted themselves off and decided to do it one last time, and do it for themselves. Happily sacrificing commercial possibilities, Deserter's Songs was born of a band doing it their way, with not a thought for the future; this was, after all, the end. Except, oh, bands, and their funny little plans. They never quite work out right. And, thus, their indulgent opus became a universal success, and their end became a brand new beginning.
The End of the '90s
"Holes," this supposed eulogy —with lyrics detailing "Time," trickling ever onwards— became, instead, an audio rabbit-hole: luring listeners down into a magical song-cycle steeped in the song cycles of Van Dyke Parks, the lurid Fantasias of Disney animation, the latter-day experiments of The Beatles, and the casual Americana of The Band. As if to evince the latter point, members of The Band turned up on the album: Levon Helm drumming on the sweeping, nostalgic, Band-worthy "Opus 40"; Garth Hudson blowing saxophone all over Grasshopper's Garfunkel-ish boy-in-the-big-city lark "Hudson Line."
Where previous albums merely stacked on the effects, Deserter's Songs employed a dizzying array of instruments: piano, analog organs, woodwinds, horns, strings, whistling, musical saw. As much as it was a personal rebirth for Mercury Rev, it was a cultural coming-out, too; the band rising from the milieu of the '90s —the addiction, the self-destruction, the crutch of distortion, the sarcasm— and finding something earnestly beautiful, sincere, and filled with dreams.
The album was a huge commercial success in England, where the NME made it their album of the year; and Mercury Rev was adopted onto the European Festival Circuit. Acceptance in America was more of the critical variety, but, back home, their influence was far more pronounced. Deserter's Songs became a touchstone in American indie-music; standing alongside Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin as defining works of those final years of the '90s.
So many acts that would become power-players during the indie music ascent of the '00s —Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Andrew Bird— were inspired by the unalloyed grandeur of Deserter's Songs, ensuring its legend for years to come. In many ways, Mercury Rev never again recaptured its magic; but the fact that they bottled it once is more than enough.
Record Label: V2
Release Date: September 29, 1998