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All is dreamy
on 22 July 2005
There's always been a sort of fantastical edge to Mercury Rev, even in the bleak grandeur of "Deserter's Songs." But "All Is Dream" takes that edge and pushes it, with its swirling music and songs that talk about dreams, vampires, nite and fog, and "floating in the tides of the moon." It's too subdued to be their best work, but it's still truly amazing.
"I always dreamed of big crowds/plumes of smoke and high clouds/But dreams don't last for long," Jonathan Donahue sings wistfully at the start of "The Dark is Rising," a plaintive meditation on how reality and dreams differ. A gentle piano melody swells into orchestral strings, before subsiding back into piano and violin.
That sets the tone for the rest of "All Is Dream," with its plaintive, pretty pop that explodes suddenly into orchestral splendor or fast-driving rock. Soft female voices call out, eerie noises sound, and catchy rhythms are tempered with thick layers of strings, synth and otherworldly lyrics. It sounds like the soundtrack to a very good action-fantasy movie.
They do break from type here and there -- "The Distance From Her To Me" is an almost unbearably cute-sounding pop song, and "Tides of the Moon" is a dark, synthy ballad, where Donahue sounds like a friendly ghost narrating a nightmare. "With prickly little thorns/sharp tiny teeth/they're hungry for the threads/hanging from your sleeve..."
And there is a very good bonus DVD. On it are a pair of live tracks, a brief and very cute documentary on the band, and some very good music videos for "Nite and Fog" and "Dark is Rising." One is a fantastical whirl that seems halfway between Rip Van Winkle and a fairy tale, and the other is a darker, more surreal one, complete with colorful CGI figures, astrolabes and planets.
"Deserters' Song" is considered the peak of Mercury Rev's career, and "All Is Dream" is not quite the same. It's more fantastical, less epic, less mind-blowing, and it's positively happy beside its sister album. It's also a bit more peaceful, with moments of yearning and fear, but overall more contemplative.
Jonathan Donahue has a rather unmelodious voice, high and a bit strange at times. However, it grows on you. Especially when it's paired with the music here -- strings, mellotron, hammond and French horn all spice up the sprawling rock melodies, which would sound rather bleak and underworked otherwise.
The songwriting is one of the things that had definitely changed from "Deserters' Songs." It has that Ye Olde Rocke'n'Rolle sound, a sort of fantasy vibe, with mentions of entombed pharoahs screaming and "the sun's red gown turns to brown." Despite, I might add, the mention of Leonard Cohen, which I don't really understand.
Mercury Rev's "All Is Dream" is an appropriate title. It does sound like a dream -- a long, wandering, dark and strange dream.