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Mercury Rev, Deserter’s Songs

I’ve long held a belief in the twin, astral spirits of Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips. Maybe it’s not real, but I’ve always perceived this direct line between the two bands. And, certainly, why not? They share a producer, the visionary Dave Fridmann. And Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, prior to Mercury Rev’s debut album, but still after their formation, joined The Flaming Lips as guitarist for the albums In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head. Saying that there was a connection between these similarly modern psychedelic bands was hardly a far stretch. It always seemed like more than that, though: as if their music, their treatments, their artwork, their liner notes – their entire philosophies, in fact, were cut from the very same cloth, even after many of the formal connections between the bands had long faded away.

And, in my record collection anyway, they were in constant rivalry. Which was the more interesting of the two? The ‘Lips’ or the ‘Rev?’ Well, music-wise, it’s all equally twisted stuff. The Flaming Lips edge more toward the violently psychedelic, with tales of bad trips and peoples’ heads exploding and so on. Mercury Rev, however, weaves a pastiche of bizarre sideshow acts and turn-of-the-century New York imagery. Very Tin Pan Alley. Classy, but still very much on the edge of comprehension. For whatever reason, I personally veered more toward the Mercury Rev end of the spectrum.

The bands’ trajectories , as I perceived them, came closest (and at their zenith, really) in Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs (1998) and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin (1999). Released within nine months of each other, the albums marked defined stepping-off points for both bands. They were clear departures from what either had done previously, and that time was due. The both of them had been battered along the way, had lost members (fired, quit, or off on spiritual journeys), and suffered medical trauma (The Flaming Lips’ Stephen Drozd almost had his hand amputated because of a spider bite). And here in these two albums was the result of that, what could be called the sweetest fruit of their careers thus far.

Both albums travel to more lush locales, sonically. They tend less toward the harsh, the freak-out, the mind-tearing. They opt away from distortion. Both are altogether very real, which is the true departure of their new outlooks – clearer lyrics, clearer meanings, clearer instrumentation. In this way, they can very much be taken together, and digested together. Well, almost.

It’s in the gorgeous, heartbreaking strings that cover the whole of Deserter’s Songs, the sheer bombast of it all – really, its ambition – that makes it stand so far above The Soft Bulletin. Though it’s hard to fault The Soft Bulletin in any way whatsoever, after all there’s no argument that it’s a brilliant album in its own right. But it’s not the kind of brilliant that speaks to me as much as the particular brand that Deserter’s Songs offers.

Really, though, there’s no actual competition here. It’s like the Yankees and the Mets or the Beatles and the Stones. Some people are fans of both, some feel the pressure to choose sides. We know it doesn’t mean anything, but we still define ourselves based on those little personal choices that mean, essentially, so very little. But it’s that choice that prompts me, whenever I hold up Deserter’s Songs as being one of the best albums ever, to explain by saying, ‘Well, it’s like The Soft Bulletin [to nods, smiles all around], only a lot better [to looks of confusion and scoffing].’


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack

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