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Holy Hell! Deserter’s Songs Turns 20

Holy Hell! Deserter’s Songs Turns 20

The sound of a band that didn’t let having nothing left to lose stand in the way of making great art.

What does a band do when they’re stuck in a rut? It’s a nice dream to make music solely for yourself, but once you put something out in the world, it can be incredibly difficult to soldier on when that art is met with a tepid response, both in terms of record sales and critical acclaim. Do you blunder forward, continuing to make albums that nobody is asking for, or do you call it a day? For Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak of Mercury Rev, the answer was difficult but clear: put out one last album, just for themselves, before ending it. They retreated to bassist/producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in the Catskills and set to work.

Mercury Rev was a good band from the start, but it didn’t matter, because they were a commercial flop—which, for a band signed during the post-Nirvana gold rush, was a big deal. Their first three albums—Yerself Is Steam, Boces and See You on the Other Side—were outstanding in their own ways, but the band at that point was more or less a failed project. The tour for See You left the band in shambles: “After the last tour, we basically fell apart,” Donahue would tell Q Magazine shortly after the album’s release. “Grasshopper checked himself into a monastery, the drummer quit, and I suffered two nervous breakdowns. I lost my girlfriend and hurt a lot of the people I love. It was a pretty horrible time; something I can never wholly rectify.”

Following a collaboration with the Chemical Brothers and a lot of time spent with the music of his childhood, Donahue rekindled his friendship with Grasshopper and began the slow work—both musical and emotional—that would lead to the creation of Deserter’s Songs. They did so as a way of waving goodbye to Mercury Rev itself: “We had no management, no label, no money and to be completely honest, no one clamoring for a new Rev album anywhere in the world,” Donahue said in a statement following the announcement of a small series of shows dedicated to playing the album. “The way we saw it, Deserter’s wasn’t going to be our next album…it was going to be our last.”

Shocking everybody, the band’s fourth try was the charm. It was an effort that felt like the 11th hour save-the-day move you only see in big budget Hollywood fare, but by giving in and allowing for defeat, they were able to shake loose whatever constraints kept them at bay. There is something jaw-dropping about the feat Mercury Rev were able to pull off with Deserter’s. It’s an album with an impressive “Did you know?” list: “Did you know the label gave them their advance in chunks because they were afraid they’d blow it all?”; “Did you know they were recording in the same studio at the same time as the Flaming Lips while they were doing The Soft Bulletin?”; “Did you know they got Levon Helm and Garth Hudson to play on the album?”

As Deserter’s was birthed from a fragile “whisper and strum,” perhaps it’s worth focusing on Donahue’s words. Knowing that this was meant to be the end, there should be no shock that loss is a central theme on the album. It creeps into every song, in tones that follow the path of grieving, from depression (“Holes”) to anger (“The Funny Bird”) to nearly triumphant (see the blissed-out refrain of “Waving goodbye, I’m not saying hello” from “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp”). The album is called Deserter’s Songs for a reason: these are songs by people who are ready to not just break up, but give up.

The passage of time is central to the framework of the album, especially in the dreamlike “Tonite It Shows,” a song built around returning to a time that may not have even been great for anyone involved: “The way you were, long before you were a walking civil war.” There’s an ease to songs like “Tonite,” where lines like “Into your soul, I tried to climb/ But found the hole to high/ For me to leave the way I’d learned” or “The way it changed, into a strange Cole Porter phrase” tumble out so effortlessly, you’re almost angry that you didn’t think of them first. That yearning permeates most every corner of the album, even on the brightest songs, like the Levon Helm-boasting “Opus 40” or the soaring “Goddess on a Hiway”—“And I know it ain’t gonna last,” Donahue sings amid Jimy Chambers’ cymbal crashes. By the time we get to “Delta Sun,” they’ve made peace with the idea of “Sliding away in a washed-out Delta sun,” time marching on without them.

A massive amount of the surprise of Deserter’s was the way it sounded. Mercury Rev was a chaotic band that made chaotic music, where the members would bring their ideas to the studio and create a Frankenstein’s Monster that somehow sounded like music. “The drummer was writing a song, the bass player was writing a song and it would get blown up by someone else,” former frontman Dave Baker said of the recording of their sophomore album, Boces, “They knew their song was going to get blown up. Maybe you don’t bring in a song that you weren’t ready for somebody to blow up.” See You flirted with their pop sensibilities in their own warped way, but in a similar manner to what Spiritualized would also embrace, pulling beauty out of cacophony.

From the moment “Holes” begins, though, the sea change is blatant. Gorgeous, aching quasi-orchestral swells flicker in, lifting Donahue’s trademark falsetto and placing it firmly in the foreground of the song. Vocals stayed mostly unburied for the duration of the album unless otherwise necessary, as in the case of “The Funny Bird,” the album’s most visceral and aggressive, with Donahue’s tremolo vocals sounding like he’s being torn apart. Grasshopper’s whispery voice is even crystal clear on “Hudson Line,” a song that should border on cheesiness—even when it’s Garth Hudson playing the sax, it can still feel ridiculous—but serves as one of the albums brightest flourishes.

Deserter’s also did a remarkable amount to reframe the guitar as an accompanying instrument, rather than the focus. The guitar is never a central focus here, instead giving the spotlight to piano, flute, Wurlitzer, mellotron, singing saw—Donahue and Grasshopper even built an instrument, the Tettix Wave Accumulator, and recorded with it, and stuck that recording on “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” as a hidden track. The album is punctuated by three weird, instrumental song-sketches, almost vignettes—the warbly “I Collect Coins,” the haunted barroom feel of “The Happy End (The Drunk Room)” and the haunting “Pick Up If You’re There.” A single instrumental track can often feel like a band stalling for time, but Mercury Rev were able to make three of them sound absolutely vital.

In a 2011 interview with The Quietus, Donahue spoke about the idea of Deserter’s being a masterpiece with the kind of naked honesty you could expect: “At the time when you’re at the bottom you’re not thinking ‘while I’m down here, now is the best time to start writing the masterpiece. If I keep getting more fucked up, the better the masterpiece will be.’” The album is triumphant not simply because it’s an album that brought the band back from the brink, but it brought the people involved back, too. It’s evidence of what can happen when musicians can find their way back from darkness to grow, to share ideas, to go for broke and include bizarre hidden tracks played on freaky, bespoke electronic instruments for the hell of it—it was the sound of a band that didn’t let having nothing left to lose stand in the way of making great art.

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