It’s funny how marketing can frame the way you listen to an album. In a fascinating attempt to distract American audiences from downloading Mercury Rev’s new-but-long-available-as-an-import album, The Secret Migration, rather than buying it, iTunes has made the album available for purchasable download in three installments. Split into sections of tracks one through four, five through eight and nine through thirteen, the album ends up being split into the band’s own personal 3 EPs, whether intentional or not. Though I must admit it is a clever marketing idea, there is the possibility that it changes the perspective of the album. And I must admit, in my listening, I distinctly hear three separate movements or “sides” for those who aren’t feeling so dramatic.
The first “side” of The Secret Migration finds the psychedelic trio emerging from the orchestral head-trip of All is Dream a similar but more concise band. Though there’s still some of the magic from Dream and Deserters’ Songs left in the air, Mercury Rev sound far less pretentious and far more driven by the pure joy of a good pop song, rather than a musical statement of grandiosity. It’s simpler this time around, and yet everything still sounds lush and wondrous. “Secret For a Song” is a powerful and suspenseful opener, but stays well under the five-minute mark, something that the Rev previously had trouble keeping in check. The twinkly sounds in “Across Yer Ocean” add to the mystique of the album, while “Black Forest” displays frontman Jonathan Donohue’s deft prog rock lyricism, “If I was a white horse/I’d offer you a ride into the black forest.”
If this first EP’s worth of songs on the album is the bridge between the Mercury Rev of yesterday and the Mercury Rev of today, the album’s midsection finds them firmly entrenched in the latter. Lush and dense as usual, there’s still a great deal invested in the production side of the album. Nevertheless, these songs are among the band’s most accessible in a long time, owing more to bands like The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen than Pink Floyd. “Vermillion” could have been a Disintegration outtake, while first single “In A Funny Way” sounds like the meeting place between Burt Bacharach and Ian McCulloch. And to make up for the Geddy Lee-isms of “Black Forest,” Donohue offers a simple infectious couplet that stands among the album’s most memorable: “On a summer day, you can hear her call/But in a funny way she reminds me of the fall.”
The brief choral number “Moving On” opens the third Migration EP, though in the scheme of the entire album, it makes for a great transition between “My Love” and “The Climbing Rose.” While this portion of the album doesn’t seem immediately different than the other two, “Arise” pops up with tom-heavy rumblings and one of the few overtly guitar-driven melodies on the album. It actually sounds more like early Rev, during their Yerself is Steam, Boces and See You On the Other Side period. Theremin wails underneath Grasshopper’s delay-heavy riffs, culminating in one of the best psychedelic rock songs in quite some time. But the last two tracks, “First-Time Mother’s Joy” and “Down Poured the Heavens” are subtler, piano-driven affairs, contrasting the bombast of much of Migration‘s denser tracks.
You could listen to The Secret Migration one of two ways: 1. as a full-length album or 2. as a series of three interwoven EPs. Take your pick, because either way, you end up with 13 great songs and one of Mercury Rev’s most accessible albums to date.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.