Interview

Inside Mercury Rev’s All-Star Ode To Bobbie Gentry

20 years after releasing their own masterpiece, the Rev corral an astonishing cast to cover another

Mercury Rev had a pretty good 2018, mostly because they had a great 1998. Though the band hadn’t released any music in a couple of years, in 2018 they became the beneficiaries of a free promotional campaign, thanks to the 20-year nostalgia cycle that inevitably spawns think pieces and retrospective listicles. And no survey of 1998’s greatest musical accomplishments is complete without a mention of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs.

Fitting for an album that was birthed in — and directly inspired by — the Catskill Mountains, Deserter’s Songs stands as the commercial and critical peak in the Mercury Rev catalog, an exquisite set of aching orchestral balladry and stormy psychedelia that granted this notoriously troubled band an everlasting life, while inspiring the next generation of indie rockers to quit staring at their shoes and start reaching for the stars. It also turned bassist/producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studio in Cassadega, New York into an Abbey Road-level destination for all manner of A-list alt-rockers.

For the Rev, Deserter’s Songs has been the gift that keeps on giving, the renewable energy source they can draw from during lulls in their schedule. In 2011, it received the deluxe-reissue treatment, followed by front-to-back performances of the record across Europe (where the album received its warmest reception). In 2016, the band issued an instrumental version, allowing listeners to more deeply luxuriate in its avant-Disney-soundtrack swirl. And last year, Rev ringleaders Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak marked Deserter’s Songs’ 20th-anniversary by touring the album once again, this time in a loose stripped-down format during which Donahue told the tale of the album’s creation, VH1 Storytellers-style (albeit with more ambient-psych improv).

But throughout this whole process, Donahue has had another Mercury Rev album on his mind — one that received a fraction of the attention of Deserter’s Songs, but which is arguably the most important evolutionary step in the band’s three-decade history. Released in 1995 through Sony’s short-lived WORK Group imprint, See You On The Other Side was the Rev’s first concerted crossover attempt, following two albums of visionary but highly volatile psychedelic squall. By that point, the band had parted ways with their original lead vocalist, David Baker (whose ticking-time-bomb presence amplified the most anarchic qualities in their music), and were reorienting around their messthetic around Donahue’s more playful, childlike voice.

Where they were once an exceedingly strange, noisy band that occasionally succumbed to disarming moments of beauty, See You On The Other Side tried to radically flip the ratio. They were still getting the chemical balance down right — See You On The Other Side is the sort of topsy-turvy record where the most majestic symphono-rock surges (“Racing The Tide”) dissolved into silly ’90s-house pantomime (“Close Encounters Of The Third Grade”), where sweet summery soul (“Sudden Ray Of Hope”) rubs up against the one Mercury Rev song that shirtless grunge bros could credibly mosh to (“Young Man’s Stride”). But in Mercury Rev’s mind, they had made a commercially viable rock album free of the intra-band acrimony that clouded their first two records.

Instead, it sold even worse, while the fervent critical acclaim that fueled their early ascent had become more diffuse. (And it’s not like the departure of Baker brought any greater degree of stability to the band; prior to their December 1995 tour stop in Toronto, the band was detained at the Canadian border for possession of drugs and firearms, not declaring their merchandise, and traveling with a crew member trying to enter the country using an alias — an impressive quadfecta of offences that Donahue referred to onstage that night as “hitting for the cycle.”) Before long, the Rev found themselves with no label, no management, and no hope, precipitating a dark downward spiral into various ill-advised pastimes that broken souls resort to in order to make it through another day. In hindsight, that black-and-white back cover photo of Donahue loading up his revolver would prove to be a grim, discomfiting metaphor for the band’s general mood at the time.

Donahue has since claimed that career nadir ultimately instilled the desperation and drive that motivated Mercury Rev to sling-shot themselves into the stratosphere with Deserter’s Songs. But the See You On The Other Side saga still weighs on him to this day, so much so that the band’s latest move is essentially a testament to that experience. Although, instead of merely reissuing the album or embarking on a commemorative tour, Mercury Rev are reliving their greatest disappointment by doing a full-album cover version of another artist’s notorious commercial flop.

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The Catskills area where Donahue was raised is roughly 1,200 miles away from Chicksaw County, Mississippi. But as a young child, Donahue was already intimately familiar with the latter area — thanks to “Ode To Billie Joe,” the ubiquitous 1967 single from country-soul siren Bobbie Gentry that transformed a small wooden bridge over the Tallahatchie River into a national landmark.

“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the AM radio was the only way music reached the mountains where I grew up,” Donahue recalls during a recent joint phone interview with Mackowiak (whom he affectionately refers to throughout as “Grassy”). “‘Ode To Billie Joe’ was a song that, looking back at my childhood, seemed to stick with me in a way that all the other novelty songs of those times didn’t. It’s more like a faded emotional Polaroid of the time. That song had a mystery to it that nothing else around it had. Even when I was a very young boy, I could tell this song was different, it had an unresolved quality to it that every other song of that time — all the ‘Little Willys’ and whatever psychedelic stuff was going on — didn’t have. It has an enigmatic quality to it that seems to hold up all through the years.”

That cryptic quality has as much to do with the song’s dark subject matter (suicide) as Gentry’s nonchalant, almost playful performance, wherein she delivers the news of Billie Joe’s demise as if casually sharing gossip with locals at the salon. The song’s unsolved mysteries — what exactly did Billie Joe and his girl throw off the bridge? And why did he jump to his death? — confounded and enraptured audiences in 1967 just as the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction and the series finale of The Sopranos would decades later. And its chart-topping success proved to be game-changing in more ways than one: “Ode To Billie Joe” knocked The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” out of the No. 1 spot and its namesake album ended the 15-week chart reign of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, heralding a new era where rock ‘n’ roll became more fixated with earthy Southern authenticity (via the Band and the rodeo-bound Byrds) than psychedelic fantasia. More crucially, it made Gentry the archetype for a new kind of female country performer — one who not only wrote her own material, but also jostled for creative control of the production console at a time when studios were largely clinical environments staffed by male technicians.

But like Moses staring over Canaan in his dying days, Gentry showed the way to a promised land of empowered female artists without ever getting to bask in it. Gentry released her last album in 1971 and spent much of the ensuing decade performing in a lavish Vegas revue, before retiring from show business altogether in the early 1980s and opting for a life spent in quiet, Salinger-esque seclusion.

As such, the Bobbie Gentry story has effectively become as mythical as the narrative in her most famous song, spawning a veritable cottage industry ofwhatever happened to” articles. (This past fall, the enduring mythology surrounding her prompted the release of an eight-disc box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County.)

But while the major turning points in Gentry’s brief career have been well-documented, much less has been said about the record that arguably determined her curious course.

Released in 1968, The Delta Sweete was the highly anticipated follow-up to Gentry’s chart-topping debut, and a well-earned opportunity to fully pursue her auteurist vision. Conceived as a concept album — complete with songs that continue the “Ode To Billie Joe” narrative — The Delta Sweete is a psychedelic record without even trying to be one. Over its 12 tracks, Gentry paints a surrealist portrait of Southern life through the prism of class, coloring in the scenery with the sounds of gritty R&B, honkin’ country-blues, gospel, hand jives, cinematic orchestral pop, cartoonish dialogue, and thematically resonant cover songs. Sounding like an AM radio dial spinning itself out of control from station to station, The Delta Sweete’s collision of styles and ideas more readily recalls the oddball energy of The Who Sell Out than anything else on the country charts at the time.

“It’s a real Southern Gothic record,” Grasshopper says. “Like, the cover songs she does on the record are these old standards in the canon of country and gospel music, but then her own songs on the album are referencing those songs. I knew some of those records from when I was a kid — Elvis sang a bunch of those songs, like ‘Big Boss Man.’ But Bobbie brought a feminine spirit to them, which was so different and refreshing. The album has so many genres, and yet it somehow all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle and makes sense. Which is what rock ‘n’ roll was from the beginning, with all these elements — like country, gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues — coming together.”

But while it can be appreciated today as the missing link between Loretta Lynn and Nico, The Delta Sweete stalled out at No. 132 on the Billboard charts, and yielded no singles that came anywhere close to matching the success of “Ode To Billie Joe.” Perhaps the commercial rejection of her purest artistic statement may explain Gentry’s subsequent tilt toward crowd-pleasing duets with Glen Campbell and Vegas spectacle, and the festering frustration with the music industry that eventually drove her into hiding. Needless to say, Donahue could relate. While he was initially smitten with The Delta Sweete’s crazy-quilt aesthetic, he eventually became transfixed with the story surrounding it, setting the wheels in motion for Mercury Rev’s own wholesale interpretation of the record, The Delta Sweete Revisited.

“Probably over the past eight or 10 years, The Delta Sweete found its way back into some semblance of my collection,” Donahue says. “For me, it was an album that seemed to have a real charm to it, and it was only later when I was talking about it to Grassy — like, ‘hey have you heard this?’ — that he told me about its critical reception. The way it was received seemed to resonate with me, to our record before Deserter’s SongsSee You On The Other Side.”

The connection between the two records may not be readily apparent, but some uncanny parallels do exist. Like The Delta Sweete, See You On The Other Side presented a blinding contrast in tone and style, with serious statements butting up against good-natured goofs. And while the two records were obviously the products of very different times and places, both celebrate their surroundings with unfettered enthusiasm and picture-postcard detail — Gentry opens her record by dropping us into the small town of Okalona, Mississippi; the Rev’s begin theirs with an epic salute to life in the “Empire State.”

But as anyone who’s looked at an electoral-college map of American can attest, there’s a lot more that separates the Northern and Southern US than weather and regional accents. And at a time when the country can feel more polarized than at any moment since the Civil War, The Delta Sweete Revisited feels like something more significant than a mere tribute album. By bringing Red State and Blue State musical sensibilities together, it suggests a spirit of cultural unity and commonality that feels all but lost today, or maybe never even really existed. Donahue claims there was no such political impetus to the project, but he is highly conscious of his position as a Yankee treading upon hallowed Dixie musical turf.

“The South was always this somewhat unspoken, impenetrable other land to me — not just from the Civil War, but even post-Civil War,” he says. “You almost didn’t feel like you should speak about it, or even sing about it if you weren’t in some way wholly connected to it. Probably for myself and maybe for Grassy, the way we got into the South would’ve been through Hollywood, through some of the old-time Walt Disney films, certainly Gone With The Wind — these very cliched versions of the South. That’s where the idea of Southern culture would’ve been imprinted post-Civil War. So it was probably up to us to bring our sense of home in the Catskills to Bobbie’s sense of place in the Delta.”

On The Delta Sweete Revisited, Mercury Rev don’t simply revisit Gentry’s classic album, they thoroughly reimagine it, liberating the singer’s intimate narratives from their rustic setting and projecting them onto a dramatic, dreamlike backdrop. If Gentry’s original album resembles a wild radio play, Mercury Rev give it the Broadway treatment. And like any elaborate theatrical production, casting is key. As Donahue recalls, “We were thinking: how do we find our own way into this very feminine album? And that was through female voices.”

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On The Delta Sweete’s opening track, “The Okalona River Bottom Band,” Gentry introduces us to the local musicians vying for a coveted spot in the titular musical combo, through an intense onstage competition where each player auditions before the local gentry and nervously awaits their decision, like some backwoods precursor to The Voice. The recruitment process for The Delta Sweete Revisited was decidedly less fraught.

“The offer just came into my inbox: ‘Would you like to contribute to the recreation of this Bobbie Gentry album?’ I don’t usually say ‘yes’ to a lot of things, but this one was a real no-brainer.”

Prior to receiving that invite to collaborate, Marissa Nadler had never met Mercury Rev, though the request didn’t come completely out of left field — the Boston-based purveyor of gothic Americana shares a UK label, Bella Union, with the band, and she credits label-head Simon Raymonde with turning her onto their music. But Nadler wouldn’t actually meet the band in person until she opened some dates for the band on the West Coast last fall, well after she had recorded her contribution for The Delta Sweete Revisited, the fantastical ballad “Refractions.”

“I can see why they give me that song, because it’s kind of mystical and creepy — in my wheelhouse, for sure,” Nadler says with a laugh over the phone somewhere in California. “When I first got the track from them, I was really impressed with the instrumentation and almost confused. I was like, ‘Wait a second, this sounds so good — is this the finished record?’ I recorded my vocal in Boston in my apartment on a computer, so it wasn’t the most country-style setting. At the time, I was just excited to work with Mercury Rev. I didn’t know they had this all-star line-up.”

Nadler is one of 12 singers who assume lead-vocal duties on The Delta Sweete Revisited — a dream-team assembly that, like Mercury Rev’s music itself, folds far-flung genres and eras together into a unified whole. Some of them — like Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell — are relationships that date back to date Mercury Rev’s formative phase when they were riding shotgun to the early ’90s shoegaze craze.

Others, like Margo Price and Phoebe Bridgers, stand at the forefront of contemporary roots music, much like Gentry did 50 years ago. And then there are the wild-card cameos that elevate The Delta Sweete Revisited from a mere gathering of peers into the first record ever to feature Grammy Award winners (Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones), underground psych-folk legends (Vashti Bunyan), and Melisandre from Game Of Thrones (aka Carice Van Houten, who’s equally well known as a singer in her native Holland).

“Probably on paper, it looks more like a musical Ellis Island than you might think would work,” Donahue quips. “But we were all thinking much more emotionally about the album than mentally.”

As Donahue tells it, The Delta Sweete Revisited began as a casual diversion between tours for Mercury Rev’s 2015 album, The Light In You, with no real timeline for completion. But when they started putting out feelers for the vocalists on their wish list, they were taken aback by the speedy and enthusiastic responses. And some of the longest shots proved to be the easiest gets. The Rev’s touring keyboardist, Jesse Chandler, extended the invite to his old friend Norah Jones, for whom Grasshopper has a long-standing affinity. (“Her hit record [2002’s Come Away With Me] has a real Charlie Brown Christmas kind of feel to it,” he says. “I felt immediately connected to it because of that.”)

According to Donahue, a mutual Dutch musician friend put the band in touch with Van Houten, who replied back in the affirmative mere seconds after receiving the request. Even the notoriously reclusive Bunyan — who famously pulled off a Gentry-esque vanishing act of her own for 30-plus years — was shockingly easy to get on board.

“She was in the town right next door to where we live in the Catskills for other family reasons,” Donahue recounts. “She was back here visiting and it was really like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe she’s within seven miles away!’ She came over with her husband and did that track in our studio, and that was just one of those moments that confirmed this [album] was something deserved to have a light on it. Each time we got another vocal back, it kept confirming we were onto something much greater than we had initially even imagined.”

The beauty of The Delta Sweete Revisited isn’t just a result of Mercury Rev applying their radiant brushstrokes to Gentry’s dust-covered songs, but in hearing the vocalists filter them through their own unique histories and personalities. In the hands of Margo Price, “Sermon” (aka the traditional spiritual “Run On”) is utterly transformed from a cheeky gospel-soul jaunt into a bone-chilling address from the pulpit, with the singer issuing its God-fearing admonishments with all the apocalyptic severity of someone who’s faced a few days of reckoning herself.

“A lot of these songs came out really easy musically for us,” Grasshopper says. “But ‘Sermon’ was one where it was like, ‘How are we going to approach this?’ Because it’s an old gospel song and it’s been done in so many ways, so we were just trying to figure out our way into it. But when we heard Margo’s version, she just grabbed it by the horns. She did all the background vocals and harmonies, and it was really emotional performance. We were pretty blown away.”

Equally striking is the cover of “Ode To Billie Joe” (not on the original Delta Sweete, but included on Revisited as a thematically linked encore capper), where Lucinda Williams shoots that familiar story through her pained rasp as if ripping off the bandage on an unhealed flesh wound.

And if you still think of Beth Orton as the ’90s folk-soul phenom who brought some levity to a couple of Chemical Brothers records back in the day, prepare to be waylaid by her devastating, parched-throat reading of “Courtyard,” a withering money-can’t-buy-happiness parable about a well-to-do woman languishing in her empty palatial estate, waiting in vain for the absentee lover who gifted it for her.

“A number of the women told us that their vocals on this record were quite different for them than what they were accustomed to, or comfortable with,” Donahue says. “Beth was one of the vocalists we were actually in the studio with — we were all in the soup together for her. I think her vocal is one of the standouts, on a personal level. It’s such a strong way to draw the penultimate conclusion to the record.”

Beyond delivering the album’s walloping emotional climax, Orton’s late-game appearance on The Delta Sweete Revisited effectively brings the story behind the album full circle. After all, both Orton and Donahue guested on the Chemical Brothers’ 1997 block-rockin’ masterpiece Dig Your Own Hole — and Donahue has credited that invite from Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands with snapping him out of his post-See You On The Other Side funk and illuminating the path that eventually led to Deserter’s Songs. But while Donahue can attest first-hand to the career-resuscitating powers of an unlikely collaboration offer, he has no designs on using The Delta Sweete Revisited to try to lure Bobbie Gentry out of the shadows in which she’s been nestled for nearly 40 years.

“That was something we all agreed early on — we weren’t looking to disturb her, or the silence of whatever horizon she chose to walk away from, or to, years and years ago,” he says. “That wasn’t the intent of doing this music. It was really just to get into an emotional resonance with what she had done, rather than trying to hook her out of a quietness she seems perfectly at home with.”

At this point, it seems unlikely Bobbie Gentry will ever reemerge with a Deserter’s Songs of her own — a surprise, out-of-nowhere career comeback that thrusts her out of oblivion. But then The Delta Sweete Revisited essentially does that job for her, reacquainting the modern world with the timeless songs of a true deserter.

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The Delta Sweete Revisited is out 2/8 via Partisan/Bella Union. Pre-order it here.