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Tell Me No Secrets

 

Mercury Rev: The Secret Migration

V2, 2005

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: February 7, 2005

By Laurence Station

Hindsight has proven what an apt title Mercury Rev's third album, See You on the Other Side, turned out to be. A transitional work (thanks in large part to the acrimonious exit of lead singer David Baker), See You on the Other Side was an unavoidably awkward release, straddling the band's earlier musical terrain, awash in indulgent psychedelic flameouts (Yerself Is Steam and Boces), and new, boldly orchestral pop landscapes.

The Secret Migration, the band's sixth album, invites some parallels to its pivotal third release. Like Other Side, it follows two albums that defined the group's sound: the highly acclaimed Deserter's Songs and 2001's lush, midnight-blue All is Dream, which charted Mercury Rev's new, Baker-less terrain. While there's no colossal lineup change this time around, and longtime producer Dave Fridmann is back behind the controls, The Secret Migration nonetheless has an evolving feel about it. And that's a good thing.

Not that the first two thirds of the album give dramatic testimony to this effect. From the de rigueur sweeping arrangement of "Secret for a Song" (which establishes the record's thematic conceit with "I'll take you where the Morningstar burns just for you, my dark country bride") through the grating "Black Forest (Lorelei)" (with its sugary, simplistic tale of white horses, black forests and taking flight on the backs of dragonflies), to "In the Wilderness" and such trite observations as "things aren't what they seem ... life is but a dream," Secret Migration plays out like a less-impressive workout of Mercury Rev, Phase II.

Then "My Love" appears: a deceptively simple confessional piece that mentions changing seasons but never falls into the trap of vocal bombast that seems to come so effortless to singer Jonathan Donahue. "My Love" is earnest, pristine and gorgeous. "The Climbing Rose" and "Arise" fall back on the familiar sound, but the album closes with "First-Time Mother's Joy (Flying)," Donahue's unadorned voice accompanied by equally unadorned piano and an atypically reserved rhythm section. And following that comes the brief, mournfully praising "Down Poured the Heavens," which, like the bulk of the record, lyrically celebrates a harmonious union with that perfect mate. Whether this trio of songs hints at a new direction for Mercury Rev remains to be seen, but clearly the band has mastered its soaring pop style, to the point of fast encroaching irrelevancy.

The Secret Migration is a beautiful-sounding record, but Deserter's Songs managed to sound spectacular and still work in adventurous detours like "The Happy End (The Drunk Room)" and the wonderful change-of-pace closer "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp." And All Is Dream had the benefit of such weirdly wonderful excursions as "Lincoln's Eyes." The Secret Migration, by comparison, is a collection of pastoral love songs, which proves kinda dull (except, presumably, for that special person to whom it's seemingly dedicated).

But there is a glimmer that change may be afoot. On "Across Yer Ocean," Donahue sings: "Where we go from here is anybody's guess." And that's an exciting notion, considering the possibilities displayed on the handful of stripped bare, emotionally naked tracks offered here. Count one reviewer eager to hear what Mercury Rev, Phase III sounds like.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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