Given their current position in the music industry picture as main stage players at the world’s most highly regarded festivals, it’s easy to forget just how from out of nowhere Deserter’s Songs was. NME’s album of the year in 1998, its makers hadn’t registered on many radars with the preceding See You on the Other Side, and the disappointing performance of said 1995 album had left vocalist Jonathan Donahue, fronting the group for the first time, in a dark place. He couldn’t have predicted how their next long-player would be received.
Deserter’s Songs emerged with little initial fanfare, but soon its beautiful constituent pieces – shimmering psychedelic pop, immersive indie-rock, spectacularly engrossing passages of sumptuous instrumentation – pricked ears in the direction of the New Yorkers. As a whole, the album doesn’t actually hang together that brilliantly – 2001’s All Is Dream is arguably better conceived – but when you’ve got stand-alone songs like Holes, Opus 40, Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, The Funny Bird and the gorgeous Goddess on a Hiway in your aural arsenal, who cares that the comparative filler’s not quite up to scratch?
Of the aforementioned offerings, opener Holes sets a fine tone for the best of what follows – woozy, romantic, achingly earnest in its fine articulating of deep emotions, it’s the sort of precedent-setting song that ends many a band’s (reputedly) finest album with the very first track. But there’s better to come here, amazingly, the pinnacle of the record’s impressive pulling on the heartstrings arriving with Goddess on a Hiway. Listening a decade after its original release, its impact hasn’t dimmed in the slightest, Donahue’s plaintive cry that “I know it ain’t gonna last” stirring something untouched by the majority of allegedly affecting outfits, something sitting in the very depths of the soul. It’s a stunning track, still – relatively rudimentary of verse-chorus-verse arrangement, but captivating of execution. It remains Mercury Rev’s most vital recording.
That line – “I know it ain’t gonna last” – could have heralded the end of the band. So disillusioned were they with the reception of See You on the Other Side that Deserter’s Songs was released as something of a swan song. How plans changed: as a direct result of subsequent across-the-board acclaim, Mercury Rev were elevated to mainstream status and have enjoyed considerable exposure ever since. This collection is more than a catalogue classic – it’s the catalyst for a career that might never have been. --Mike Diver
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