Deserter’s Songs Turns 20
I want to share with you two scenes, two instances when I purchased Deserter’s Songs, two moments that continue to shape how I hear the album so many years later. I suspect others hear the music in a similar way, even if we don’t share the same experiences.
The first took place in 1998, when I visited the sadly short-lived record store Noise in Birmingham, Alabama. It was run by a guy named Greg, who would always have recommendations for me. He’s put CDs in my hand that I just had to hear, or he would put something on the stereo, crank it up until the other shoppers left the store. That’s how I discovered Pinetop Seven and Regia and Toshack Highway and a dozen other albums that are still crucial threads in my listening life.
On this day in 1998 — I believe it was fall, as I remember a crispness to the air — Greg told me he was going to play the new album by Mercury Rev and don’t complain, just give it a listen. He must have seen the look on my face, because what I knew of the band I didn’t really like. I’d received countless promos sent to my college newspaper for reasons I’m still not clear on, and I had never really appreciated their distortion and the feedback that they sculpted into strange shapes. Another friend had tried to get me to listen to their 1995 album See You On The Other Side, arguing that it was more psychedelic, more accessible. It didn’t take.
I figured the same would happen with this new one, so I wasn’t expecting much when the first ambient notes of “Holes” shimmered through the speakers at Noise. Instead of noise, I got something that sounded like a dark Disney tune: sustained synths, fluttering woodwinds, a zero-gravity acoustic guitar strum, a tambourine festooned like holiday lights around a steady crescendo into an instrumental passage that serves as the song’s chorus. I couldn’t tell which sounded more alien: Jonathan Donahue’s high, warbly vocals or the singing saw shimmying through the ominous fanfare.
Perhaps it was the volume: Noise was empty, so Greg cranked it up a little louder than usual. Perhaps it was Greg, who threw his head back in rapture, eyes closed, a big smile on his face, as though he was trying to remember what it was like to hear it all for the first time. Usually he watched me closely, as though trying to gauge his customer’s reactions, but this time he seemed confident in my response. “Holes” sounded like something much larger than myself, something enveloping and immersive, yet it also felt impossibly small, a snowglobe world, self-contained and shaken up every time you pressed play.
Of course I bought Deserter’s Songs, and of course I kept it in heavy rotation for the next year or so, eager to revisit that strange world conjured by this strange music. And I learned quickly that the world-making extended to the rest of the album, from the woodwind fanfare of “Tonite It Shows” to the traintrack rhythms of “Hudson Line,” from the ebullient stomp of closer “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” to the jarring piano chords of “The Happy End (The Drunk Room).”
Less than a year later, I’d already memorized the album. In summer 1999 I was newly married, honeymooning in New York City. Later, I would briefly call the city home, but at the time such a dense urban environment felt intense, busy, foreign. I tried to hold myself to one record store for the trip, and it turned out to be a big box store near the Public Library. I can’t remember which chain it was. Coconuts? Sam Goody? Its stock wasn’t especially thorough or interesting, but I did manage to turn up a copy of Deserter’s Songs that, for some reason, came with a bonus disc of live cuts. It seemed indulgent to buy a new copy of the album, but I couldn’t resist.
Back at the hotel, 40 stories above the city, my new wife napped while sat at the window, looking over the skyline and listening to both the album and the bonus CD on my Discman. The device was ancient and clunky even then, a boxy, awkward thing with tinny sound and foam headphones. I knew the effect of Deserter’s Songs would be much different, not quite so raw-nerve, because I already knew the album and was already familiar with the band’s sound. I had pored over the lyrics sheet and thought I knew the songs intimately. I knew what was coming before I hit play. That doesn’t mean it was less transporting — more that I knew where Mercury Rev were taking me.
My first time playing this second copy of the album, the effect was not quite so raw-nerve because I already knew the album, was already familiar with the band’s sound, had pored over the lyrics sheet and thought I knew the songs intimately. I knew what was coming before I hit play, but that doesn’t mean it was less transporting — more that I knew where Mercury Rev were taking me.
The bonus disc was something else. Even then I knew there was no way the band could re-create that lush sound in a live setting; that would take at least one orchestra, maybe two, and a small arsenal of instruments from another time: calliope, theremin, bowed saw. But I was startled by just how stripped down they sounded, how they had pared “Holes” down until it was just keyboard, a stair-stepping acoustic guitar, and Jonathan Donahue’s vocals. It was jarring, as were the all-but-unplugged versions of “Opus 40″ and “Endlessly.” The standout, however, was their cover of Neil Young’s “Philadelphia.” Donahue’s voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Young’s, and they both strain to reach the high notes on the chorus — a noticeable effort that makes the song sound all the more compassionate and vulnerable, as though they are wracked with the pain of caring.
It’s a lovely cover, but that didn’t mean I was able to completely wrap my head around it. The song was only about five years old at that point, and the connection with Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, a pat but effective film about the AIDS crisis and the systemic prejudices faced by the gay community, only grounded Mercury Rev in the very real world. It anchored the band in the here and now, in actuality rather than fantasy, especially how Donahue changed a line about Philadelphia to his own hometown of Kingston, New York, which only underscored the fact that he came from Earth after all.
It sounded like the band was trying to crack the snowglobe from the inside, trying to pry open the armoire that would lead from their Narnia to my Manhattan. I didn’t want those barriers to come down just yet. I didn’t want to see what was behind the curtain. I wanted that world I associated with Deserter’s Songs to remain cordoned off, a zone of escape but also a reminder that music could cast such a heady spell. I didn’t want to grow up, is perhaps what I’m trying to say.
And so here I am, all grown up. Truth be told, it’s no so bad. I’m still married to that same woman. Noise closed, but I reconnected with Greg via Facebook. That unremembered record store in New York closed. I visit the city once or twice a year, and I try to devote a few hours each trip to walking around the city with my headphones in. I make my living writing about albums like Deserter’s Songs, and if being a full-time freelance music journalist isn’t not growing up, then I don’t know what is. And I’ve been asked to write about this particular album on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary — officially, it turns 20 this Saturday — which makes me feel old but also makes me feel like I understand it very differently now.
I know these songs so well, like the veins in my hands or the arc of my wife’s lips. Every moment sounds fated, no longer a decision made by a particular group of musicians, but rather the natural order of things, as inevitable and inarguable as death. It’s hard to think of “Holes” or “The Funny Bird” or “Hudson Line” or even interstitials like “Pick Up If You’re There” as demonstrating artistic agency, and that’s fine. I don’t even want to think of the album in those critical terms. I still like the idea of music as miracle, as benign magick.
I know more about the album now than I did then, not through focused research but through the gradual accumulation of new ideas and facts. I learned that the band was crumbling just before they recorded Deserter’s Songs; they’d lost their manager and their drummer and they were in debt. I read about how Donahue slid into depression, how he revisited some beloved records from his childhood, and how he and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak reconnected during very informal sessions for an album they weren’t certain they would even finish. I learned about their success in the UK, where NME named Deserter’s Songs Album of the Year. And I just missed their tour with the Flaming Lips, another band that found a new sound and unprecedented success after the loss of a founding member.
And maybe it’s not true, that part I mentioned about hearing everything on the album as inevitable. I know the general shape of the album, but I pick up new details almost every time I listen. I only just recently heard the female voice exclaiming “Damn!” at the end of “Endlessly,” and my ears waited many years to tell my brain about the studio murmur on “Hudson Line,” one of several moments that anchor Deserter’s Songs to the studio — in particular, their former bassist Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studio near Woodstock, New York, where the Lips were concurrently recording their own career-redefining The Soft Bulletin. I must have ignored these signposts when I was younger. Perhaps I simply didn’t want to hear them, so strong was my desire to preserve that world they had started building back at Noise.
Listening to these songs after having lived so much life, I can see that Donahue and Grasshopper were trying to destroy that world even as they constructed it, that they were trying to keep us rooted in our own world even as they showed us this new and strange one. Looking back, I understand how unfair it was to confine Mercury Rev to that snowglobe, which was like pinning butterflies to corkboard or keeping fireflies in jars. That’s why “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” sounds so exciting now, so poignant and promising: “Waving goodbye, I’m not saying hello!” Donahue sings toward the end, and it’s a statement that’s both triumphant and melancholy. They’re mourning the past yet embracing the future — a new world yet to come.