Talkhouse Contributing Writer Mark Eitzel used to be certain that the aliens would listen in on his dreams where he wrote amazing pop songs. Then they would record them and release them illegally the next day. He used to listen bitterly to the radio for his stolen songs. He has many tragic flaws. You can follow him on Twitter here.
You know when you go to some big cathedral in Europe and the colored lights shine like NEW through ancient windows and someone coughs and the sound goes on forever and it’s that “world in a grain of sand” thing that William Blake talked about. It’s apocalyptic and also empty. “O, Mysteries!” you say, and quietly brush away a tear. This is how I feel about The Light in You, the new album by Mercury Rev.
First song up is “You’ve Gone with So Little for So Long.” It’s bravely a bit Kansas — or late-period Yes — and then the strings free themselves of gravity and it’s beautiful and the song ends. Yes. I am in.
Then iTunes plays “Our Day Will Come” by Amy Winehouse because it’s on shuffle and I think it’s the same record because it’s an Expensive-Sounding Production and wow, Mercury Rev is doing reggae — how cool — and who is that singing? Ha. Yes, I’m an idiot. Then I stay with Amy for a few songs and I think how magical a great pop song is.
Then I go back to church with Mercury Rev and wow, you know it’s going to be really something. I listen to the song again and it’s a sweeping ride on a silver galleon, but it is also a compassionate piece about self-healing. Oh. OK.
I decide I need to hear Mercury Rev’s 1998 Deserter’s Songs. I really loved and connected with that record. Both Europe and America heard this hiss from my headphones. I played it over and over.
I thought I would look like a smart reviewer if I compared “The Funny Bird” from Deserter’s Songs with “Queen of Swans” from the new album. I thought: talk about how the lyricist has progressed with his use of winged-creature metaphors.
I can’t find my Deserter’s Songs CD, so I have to buy it again. I try to buy it from iTunes and they have “New Terms and Conditions” and it’s twenty pages (this time, I actually read it) of “we reserve the right to…” so fuck that and fuck them. I go to Amazon and they say I must change my “1-Click” settings and then I do and then go ’round and ’round about ten times, unable to buy, so fuck that and fuck them too.
Can we please have record stores?
In “The Funny Bird,” I remember the singer sounded like a bait worm at the end of a hook poised over the Abyss. (Yes, the one from the movie The Abyss.) He dangles there, singing his sad song, and waits for a frozen-faced predator. He sings to the silence, “You are the only one I know” — and the Abyss arrives in all its chaotic pomp and glory. His little song is lifted into this grand, tragic truth. Ugh. Really, it’s so fucking great. I owe these people a huge debt for this record.
“Queen of Swans” is all that — but not more. As writers, I think Mercury Rev have thought it bold to write very simple love songs without irony or “artiness.” I applaud this, though personally I am not evolved enough to connect with it. “Queen of Swans” is “everything” — and that is the problem. Maybe the syrup of the lyric should be offset by something not syrup. It’s a syrup mixed with syrup. Sugarplums and rainbows just make me nervous. Is there a ring of hell for playing beautiful soundtracks about beauty?
His “Emotional Freefall” may have put the singer in a dark place, but the song is like riding Eurostar: it’s modern and comfortable, but you are going crazy in the silence and hate your double reflection in the perfectly paned windows while some businessman is shouting about futures in Dutch. I feel the freefall but not really the emotional — though I know it’s there.
I know this record is an achievement — just for the ambition of it. Plus I love Mercury Rev. It’s the Music of the Spheres LSD Experience you might have had a good ten minutes of before the crushing “truth of your life” breaks in with its broken body camera and Guns Drawn. There is always a reaching for heaven in the music, but (and believe me, I know this firsthand) the “choir ah” sample can be much overused.
Next is “Central Park East.” Wow. The music is so amazing. But I can’t get past the lyrics. No, you are not “the only lonely boy to ever walk in Central Park.” But yes, you must be the only lonely boy walking in this dreamy miasma of gorgeousness. Thing is, I would probably love these lyrics if they were sung by Scott Walker. He could sing “The sun through the clouds shining on the cobblestones” and it would sound important and dramatic, like Walt Disney counting money. Here, I listen and find myself thinking, “Are there really cobblestones in Central Park? Of course there are. But where? Of course, there must be some, somewhere. Come on, why am I so closed to the cobblestones,” etc. I like the track, but it repels all who try to see beneath the glossy surface
“The Rain, the Park and Other Things” by the Cowsills is a masterpiece.
I love “Rainy Day Record,” but it sounds so twee. I love everyone the singer name-checks. (Romeo Void!!) Also, I’m glad he loves music. So do I. If you read this song as “I’ve been so fucked up for so long, and now on the other side I’m rediscovering simple pleasures, like listening to an album,” then it’s great. But if you look at it like, “Look, I know I’m a great artist, but it humanizes me to reveal to the people out there that I love music just like they do,” then it’s problematic. Because in this recording, it seems like no one actually knows. I will throw in on the side of the first reading. My god, I know this piece makes me sound like a complete bitch, but this is how the song made me feel. And it’s OK, because I am box-office poison. If I say I like something, you can guarantee it will disappear into obscurity. If I don’t like something, it will fly into the history books and rise in the East.
“Moth Light” starts like a great Disney movie, and you have to admire an attempt at capturing romance and real joy. I could learn a thing or two about this, of course — but I feel like I’m being lectured to. It ends with the spoken lines “Play with fire/You might get burned.” Really? Thanks so fucking much.
Or else I am not worthy of this music or this band and should admit that my only agenda is the maintenance of the chip on my shoulder. I should understand that my idea of music is broken and outdated and even cruel. I should admit that I just want blood.
I love the music of “Autumn’s in the Air” and can even appreciate the sentiment. But. But. To say that now you “know what it was like in Beatle George’s mind”.… Really? Oh god, I get it, but did you really have to? Can’t we just leave the poor man alone? Lord knows I’m not immune to the joys of throwing in a hero reference. I’ve done it many times, to my shame. But it is Folly. It is Folly.
And then I think “Coming Up for Air” was designed to scare off people like me. Listening to the opening lyrics, I thought, if he says “Just another dolphin, just another dolphin, just another dolphin” ONE MORE FUCKING TIME it will summon Candyman. Or maybe it was just how the strings sweep around, evoking swimming and dolphins. A little on the nose. Ugh, actually maybe I really like this track. I mean, “coming up for air” is evocative and interesting, but the music here is so joyous in that Olias of Sunhillow kind of way. He’s really “not coming up for air” — he’s actually drowning. Success is the best revenge. It’s the joyfulness of one who has decided suicide is the best course of action: My Death Makes Me Win. In that way, it’s the most subversively successful track. Certainly, it evokes the un-crackable smile of some Disney character running amok. It’s nursery music for suicides.
Great ideas; great musicians playing the great ideas; it is a gorgeous experience — but it’s like having a friend with a yacht. Everything is piloted for you and you can only be a passenger on the yacht owner’s ocean. Gratitude gets exhausting.
The thing is, a fuck-up like me is hungry for musical salvation, and that kills all wit and irony. Sorry, but I lately have become a complete bore. These days I need the music to speak somehow to my life. Otherwise it just makes me mad.
I mean, I’m sure the band did intend a musical salvation. This record is not a gesture. I think they actually made a very generous and also a very personal record, even though it’s couched in the most expensive reverb money can buy (and reverb is cheap as dirt).
I think Mercury Rev truly intended to give everything they’ve got with The Light in You. They’re not holding back, and they are not lazy. It’s just that, for me, it’s the smile of a President: a lot of history, but no real place for you in it.