In the middle of a song illuminated by Rev-like dreamy wonder and aural kaleidoscopia, "Butterfly's Wing" suddenly dissipates, floating across like some distant space-age symphony. Children laugh. The high, plaintive cries of a grown-up overlap overhead, spreading the celestial mood. You imagine that this could be the sound of a dream...
Which is another way of saying, Mercury Rev are back, that rare essence intact, but tilted on its axis. "Butterfly's Wing" is track two on their new album, Snowflake Midnight, which is as thrilling as their other milestone releases, specifically their 1992 sprawling avant-psych Dada-rock debut Yerself Is Steam, and their 1998 opus Deserter's Songs, which signalled their rebirth as purveyors of a cosmic brand of the popular American songbook. Snowflake Midnight, given its inject of both vintage and present-day electronics, is less a rebirth than a reboot; but it sounds like a brand new Mercury Rev. Few bands can reinvent themselves even the once, but Snowflake Midnight is the sound of lightening striking again..
Mercury Rev - which remains the triangular core of Jonathan Donahue, Grasshopper and Jeff Mercel - admit they knew what was needed, though of course they didn't know how to get there until they'd done it. Maybe they sub-consciously realised that they made albums in threes - first Yerself Is Steam, its jazzier sequel Boces (1993) and the transitional See You On The Other Side (1995), then Deserter's Songs and its blood relations All Is Dream (2001) and The Secret Migration (2005). Maybe releasing the soundtrack Hello Blackbird (for Robinson Savary's film debut Bye Bye Blackbird) was a sign of another direction. Maybe releasing their first compilation, The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breaths 1991-2006, drew a line under the past. All they know is, they recognised a change over which they had no control.
Jeff: "I remember thinking that this record had to almost come from a different band. We wanted to let go of familiar and comfortable ideas of sound and ways of working, or to cannibalise those ideas, to take away the things we'd previously leant on, and use the underpinnings...reverse engineering, if you will."
Grasshopper: "We tried to work in different ways and on other instruments. I didn't even touch a guitar for several months. We retained the power to shock, delight, and surprise ourselves!"
To this end, they found themselves infusing new approaches to recording for the first time since their pre-Rev days in Buffalo, New York when Jonathan and Grasshopper made soundtracks for their art-house super-8s before carrying over that mindset into Yerself Is Steam. But Snowflake Midnight's programmed synergy - from ambient to its own concept of dance - is markedly different to that first album's electronics-as-noise.
But then the band that made those early albums was markedly different too.
Jonathan and Grasshopper were joined by vocalist David Baker, drummer Jimy Chambers, flautist Suzanne Thorpe and bassist Dave Fridmann. Jonathan's memory of that line-up? "Unified craziness." Yerself Is Steam and Boces induced beatnik-noise-acid-collage creativity in the studio, freakishly beautiful aural chaos that spilled over into dressing-room fights and even onto the stage; a therapist on the books; then the departure of David Baker, and for some of those left behind, addiction issues and nervous breakdowns.
Says Grasshopper, sagely, "at that point, you either have to pull the plug, or pull the pieces back together."
Returning home after finishing See You On The Other Side, they drastically needed to re-evaluate and regenerate. The album that emerged, Deserter's Songs, fed jazz, folk, Disney soundtrack fantasia, 60s rock (The Band's legendary Levon Helm and Garth Hudson were unexpected guests on the album) into Rev's singular blown-mind generator. At this juncture, Chambers and Thorpe left too. Likewise Fridmann, though he has since co-produced every Mercury Rev album as well as several by Flaming Lips, Mogwai and others. The new Rev, with Adam Snyder and Jeff Mercel on keyboards and drums respectively, started touring, and found Deserter's Songs was Rev's first bona fide hit, with Top 40 singles in the UK and the live Rev blowing audience minds just as their own began to heal.
The more orchestrated All Is Dream reinforced the concept of Mercury Rev as the vanguard of a new American psychedelia. And as true psychedelicists, the pioneering spirit still thrives, and that's Snowflake Midnight which is both vastly far-reaching and emphatically epic.
Not that the album pretends to be anything radical - more that it simply goes where it wants to. As Jeff says about the near-eight-minute 'Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower': "it's two or three different songs all in one. Where you'd expect a part of the song to come back to you in a traditional way, it morphs into something else, maybe something you didn't expect, but it's exactly what the song needed to be."
''Dream of A Young Girl...'s odyssey is equalled by the album's other lengthy opus 'People Are So Unpredictable' distinguished by tranquillity and explosions, crescendos and deep breathing with an instrumental coda that sounds like a musical comet trail. It blends into the glorious single-minded instrumental, 'October Sunshine'.
At the start of 'Runaway Raindrop', you can hear the influence of electronic minimalist pioneers such as Terry Riley, Tony Conrad and Philip Glass, and also the glassy, luminous quality of Eno's Another Green World album. 'Faraway From Cars' is the sort of uncanny Eno-esque song that emanates from an alternate pop galaxy, strange, yet warm - and lyrically, it seems to describe a world that's far removed from our earthly reality: "there's a little part of me / that's faraway from cars... from cash... from war.. from tears.. from the past... from here."
'Senses On Fire', emerges from a lagoon of starry ambience, then transforms itself with an insistent array of bleeps before Jonathan announces "ready or not, here I come," and the band kick into an adrenalin rock-out that recalls Yerself Is Steam's avant-rock thrill. The finale 'A Squirrel And I (Holding On.. And Then Letting Go)', by contrast, is one last ecstatic sigh of drifting green seas, tribal rhythms and the bliss of letting go.
Jonathan is of the persuasion that lyrics should have "an openness and universality to them so that in ten years' time, we could still sing them and know they could mean something different. A diary doesn't translate well after ten years."
Jonathan goes on to add in his own inimitable manner: "Snowflake Midnight... a self-organising dance of uncontrollable stillnesses (rising / bursting / thriving / flourishing) on a delicate sharp edge of dissolution," he writes, "whose behaviour never repeats itself, always unpredictable and yet paradoxically and at times, most subtly never fails to resemble itself ... a mirror in a mirror in a mirror."
That's Mercury Rev for you. As exquisite and complex as a snowflake, as mysterious and magical as midnight. See you on the other side.