You can see All is Dream as a rock and roll record, but only if you squint. Coming off the critical success of their creative watershed, Deserter's Songs, Mercury Rev has decided to take the sound they created on that album out for a joyride. Comparisons between their new sound and that of The Flaming Lips are still germane, but only in passing. Dave Fridmann, the bass player and production wunderkind, continues to hone his now trademark sound here, resulting in a playful mix of sullen nostalgia and sideways fancy.
Mercury Rev's unique talent lies in their ability to take a page from nearly every book and mold it into their own nuanced brand of music. In a word: mercurial. Having learned from prog-rock excesses, the band adroitly blends untraditional rock instruments and classical flourishes to create an airy and open sound. The lead track is a perfect example; "The Dark is Rising" opens up with all of the bombast of a James Bond theme, and tumescently swells into a sort of Anne Murray plaintiveness. All of this is managed with such disarming celerity that the listener hardly minds that he or she is listening to soft rock. Anyone who has sung along to the chorus of "Laughter in the Rain" knows what I mean.
Lead singer Jonathan's high, nasal falsetto is the most distinctive element in the band's whirling compositions, and he uses it to evoke simple lyrical images. The first four songs delineate the childish optimism and sad longing that haunt All is Dream. "Lincoln's Eyes," "Chains," and "Tides of The Moon" come across as cosmic travelogues posing as nursery rhymes. The first, for instance, revolves around a catechistic litany of questions: "What implodes like a Zeppelin/Cracks like pavement/Smokes in the basement/And knows when you're lying..." All the while, drummer Jeff Mercel, bassist Fridmann and guest musicians are layering on french horns, chimes, a string quartet, a singing saw, and other instruments ad infinitum. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead also may find a few of his keyboards missing. And for all of you guitar enthusiasts, Mercury Rev guitarist Grasshopper has gotten his hands on Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" pedal and is abusing it appropriately on "Tides of the Moon" and "Hercules." Lord have mercy.
The album's linchpin is "A Drop in Time", a delightful string figure that bounces the tune along to the kissing-baby sing-song chorus: "Let the music play like you want it to/Let the sunshine lite in your hair/Let the moonlite play/At your feet like a babe/And softly linger there." Jonathan wins Lyrical Simile of the Year later in the song: "But I was caught, like a fleeting thought/Stuck inside of Leonard Cohen's mind."
All is Dream is a night record that begins as evening falls and follows the thoughts of nostalgic, relationship-absorbed characters through Tolkeinesque images like toys slowly winding down. There is enough going on in this deceptively short album to make you close your eyes and keep dreaming for more.