Like its moody contemporaries Nick Cave or His Name Is Alive, upstate New York's Mercury Rev has taken a bizarre, winding path to its current vision of twisted American music. While Cave has settled post-punk ire into outsider-bluesy balladeering and His Name swings moody hybrids of folk, gospel and '60s pop references, Mercury Rev emerges from a decade of soundtracks, art pop and ambience with the quirkily existential, classic-rock-fueled repertoire found on its fifth album, All Is Dream.
Deserter's Songs, from 1998, reflected the band's relocation to the Catskills and felt like an assortment of rural porch songs made epic by a neo-romantic composer such as Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. While All Is Dream picks that mood up again with the aria-like "The Dark Is Rising," the rest of the album weaves singer Jonathan Donahue's simple, tragic mantras into unique and strange intersections with REO Speedwagon-ish ballads ("You're My Queen"), poppy Velvets darkness ("A Drop in Time") and lonely highway blues ("Tides of the Moon"). Even at its most grandiose, All Is Dream's sound still seems to center on Donahue's lyrics and unlikely voice. His quavering, mousy tone recalls a timid Neil Young rather than the Leonard Cohen pipes you'd expect to be singing lines like "I dreamed I'd always love you complete/I never thought I'd hear you scream." Juxtaposed against such deliciously pompous arrangements, the lyrics and that voice keep you intrigued and wading inside the band's opaque and melancholic dreamland.