At the close of track three there is a barely audible whisper: "Damn" is how I hear it, and it serves as a more eloquent review of Mercury Rev's latest than I can tender, but bear with me.
It's the kind of exclamation that sums up the remarkable music that has preceded it (more on that later), while at the same time acknowledging that this type of magic is difficult to sustain. And I feel like a shit for quibbling when I spot the seam separating the transcendent from the simply very good. Damn.
Take "Opus 40" for example. Nice song. Got the Band's Levon Helm on drums, Springsteen's "suicide machine," Morrison's "alive she cried," and a piece of McCartney's "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight" for a chorus. And while that makes it sound like some daft classic rock Frankenstein it manages to have its own appropriately conflicted personality, summed up as "tears in waves minds on fire/ nights alone by yr side." The picture of a shared hell justifying both orchestral swells and jaunty organ breaks...
"Hudson Line," which follows, doesn't fare as well. Is it tribute, strained irony, or some sort of harmonic studio convergence that has the Band's Garth Hudson showing up here? No matter- the good will, bad joke, or plain coincidence cannot overcome the mundane psychedelia of "technicolor raindrops wash(ing) gumballs down th' drain." And speaking of mundane psychedelia, the little calliope interlude, "The Happy End (The Drunk Room)," closes with the piano breakdown that opens the Rolling Stones' "2000 Light Years from Home."
"Goddess on a Hiway" lives in its chorus, a bleak "An' I know it ain't gonna last" that comes on like Radiohead meets Flaming Lips (with whom the band shares a family tree), but withers in its verses, where "I got us on a hiway an' I got us in a car" morphs wanly into "she's a goddess on a hiway, a goddess in car." "The Funny Bird" expands the mood and tenor of that chorus into a dark and wonderful thing that sounds as if it's being sung by a drowning man.
The "wavin' goodbye I'm not sayin' hello" outro of "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" is a bit too formulaic and rockist, but is redeemed by the confused "Hello?" that is yodelled over the hidden Bernard Herrmann tribute that closes the disc. Funny thing, that hidden track- it makes the time counter on my CD player reverse and count down to zero. Which brings us back to...
The beginning. "Holes" opens the album with a bowed saw solo (!) that sounds like the call of some weary mythological bird, a summation of (in this case the musician's) life that will bring you to tears or at least the consideration of tears ("Bands, those funny little plans, that never work quite right"), and a soothing lullaby.
"Tonite It Shows" follows, with a melody and melancholy sophisticated lyricism (in the first two verses at least) that would do the namedropped Cole Porter proud.
"Endlessly" makes vague threats of breaking out into "Silent Night" and then in a stroke of genius does just that. The bowed saw returns and with angelic voices encourages us to sleep in heavenly peace. And that is exactly what "Endlessly" is: a heavenly piece.