Under the Radar’s 15th Anniversary: Mercury Rev’s “All Is Dream”
Celebrating Under the Radar's 15th Anniversary and the Best Albums of 2001
Jan 23, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Under the Radar's very first print issue came out in December 2001. In honor of our 15th Anniversary some of our writers are reflecting on some of their favorite albums (and movies and TV shows) from 2001.
Albums come and albums go, most failing to make much of an impact after that initial rush of first discovery fades. As All Is Dream saw release in 2001 and remains on my playlist today, I think it's safe to say it bucks that trend, and will likely stay with me as long as I'm still listening to music.
I've settled into a comfortable pattern with Mercury Rev's ethereal fifth release, a routine that takes me through my favorite tracks; but it's yet to grow stale because that rush of discovery floods back on every repeat. I remember distinctly when I first found them, listening to an end of year countdown of the best songs of 2001 on an obscure British radio station. The experience was dour until "The Dark Is Rising" burst out with a crash of strings and tinkling of piano. That same day I'm in town trading Christmas vouchers for the CD. I've not looked back since.
All Is Dream isn't the best album from the Buffalo band fast approaching their 30th anniversary. That accolade belongs to its direct predecessor, Deserter's Songs. What it is, without hitting the heights scaled by "Opus 40" or "Goddess on a Hiway," is their most consistent work, balancing experimental early Mercury Rev with their more polished later sound. Lead singer Jonathan Donahue and co walk that line with admirable confidence, and no shortage of ambition or quality.
Back when garage rock was taking over and everyone wanted to be The Strokes, All Is Dream was content to go its own way. Music can have many different impacts. This is an album to transport, an album to draw down the shutters and float away too. It's packed full of songs that soar up from mundane reality, scaling great heights to look down on nothing in particular as Donahue's oddly pitched voice breaks over everything below.
It's an album of three parts, starting with a series of lush, haunting songs before picking up buoyancy and almost reaching a state of joy before descending back into a painfully exposed finale. "The Dark Is Rising" explodes the album into life, a story of broken love and dreams coming over a piano piece that builds in repeated string crescendos. The arrangements are rich and powerful, continuing through the next collection of songs that see the strutting beat of "Tides of the Moon" eventually trip into the steady build and controlled detonation of "Lincoln's Eyes," a lengthy song packed full of dense riddles. The siren call that starts this mid-album epic is the first sign All Is Dream had fully slipped its moorings and is now floating free from constraint.
Relationships remain the foundation on which much of Mercury Rev's songwriting (the songs are written by Donahue, guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak, and Jeff Mercel who features on drums and piano) is built, the tempo picking up for "Nite and Fog," "Little Rhymes," and the blissfully catchy "Drop in Time," a song that manages to plant a Leonard Cohen reference in amongst a collection of bouncy lyrics. The only misstep is "You're My Queen," which is not so much bad as it is incomplete, a half-thought never expanded.
The switch in tone that sees haunting give way for a while is, while certainly noticeable, not overly pronounced. That's because the record as a whole has already wandered off into its own space, swept away on overpowering arrangements, dreamy couplets, and subtle melodies. There's fun to be had but it comes with an emotional kicker, one that hits hard in the stark piano of "Spiders and Flies" as Donahue laments the impermanency of things, and the creeping attack of closer "Hercules." All the while that unique voice and sterling guitar work sound out, distinctly separate from the piano, strings, and percussion driving much of the album. All together the band ride the wave started by the opening crash in the first track, mixing in wonderfully descriptive lyrics to add the sense they're working on a different plane.
It's a plane they would never quite discover again, future years majoring more on rich production at the expense of a mystical otherworldly attitude. That doesn't diminish how good there were on All Is Dream, nor does it prevent the quality shining through today. If anything, it only goes to show how lucky we were back in 2001 to receive an album that's lost none of its magic today.
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