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Dark Tidings

The video for Mercury Rev’s “Nite and Fog” scans like a malignant triangulation among The Blair Witch Project, Excalibur and Begotten: An asp glides through the brush, black-hatted pilgrims and chain-mailed knights gather in a forest’s clearing, a wooden model of the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life rests against a tree like a disused kite, paper boats drift across a cauldron’s dark liquid surface. Horus with his falcon’s-head helmet appears, followed by a white-paint-faced lady with long dark hair. She’s laughing. The sun dips below the horizon, the cauldron is upturned . . .

It’s the language of myth and archetype, and the language of Led Zeppelin and King Crimson and T. Rex and Fleetwood Mac and countless lesser faerie folkies and dragonmaster prog-rockers. A visual and conceptual vocabulary built up over thousands of years, it stars serpents and beasts, insects and goddesses, brooks and bridges, the sun and the moon: Think Blake and Coleridge and all those other romantics and gothics and mad absinthe poets. It’s a language that, perhaps because of its inevitable ’70s high school poetry connotations, is largely absent from the work of serious contemporary pop artists with the exception of neo-folklorists like PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Will Oldham, etc. Yet these images still come to us, even if we are not receiving them from our daily experience. They come to us in our dreams.

Singer Jonathan Donahue’s lyrics to All Is Dream come from the dreamery, too — he wrote many of them as he lay upstairs from the recording studio, hearing the music rise from below. They’re suffused with archetypal images (moons, serpents, streams), mythic personages (Hercules, Jesus, pharaohs) and ancient texts (Psalms, magic spells, the Vedas) whose meanings are murky. There’s the morning-after dreamalogue in “Chains” (“You were speaking to no one/I called your name/You were looking for something/Without any chains”); the riddles of “Lincoln’s Eyes (A Cruel Black Dragon Lurks)” (“What appears like an angel/Stabs like a dagger/Fills you with light/And bleeds you of matter”); the puzzling dream-voyage of the epic “Hercules” (“In the morning your face cracks and falls to the sea/The sun follows your step and leads you back to me”); and “Spiders and Flies,” a keynote for the album’s tone (“Plans and schemes/Thoughts and dreams/Who cares what they mean/When they work they’re amazing things/When they don’t I hear you scream”).

You’ve got to be careful when you work with this dreamstuff — down that path, treacle lies. (Not for nothing did the punk rockers throw the cosmic baby out with the brackish hippie bath water.) As Donahue’s words are at once hugely evocative and wholly allusive, they require music similarly clear yet opaque, an alluring and illusory surface that suggests unchartable depths. Mercury Rev — and their collaborators on this album, including T. Rex/Bowie producer Tony Visconti — know this. So where Deserter’s Songs, the Rev’s ’98 commercial breakthrough, was set in gently psychedelic snow-globe wonderlands, its folk-rock lullabies accompanied by bowed saws and Mellotrons and acoustic guitars, All Is Dream is fittingly stranger. It retains some of Deserter’s’ whimsical musical approach — check out the Neil-Young-fronts-the-Disney-Symphony opener, “The Dark Is Rising,” or the string-laden anthem “A Drop in Time” — but just as often the band goes for something darker. “Tides of the Moon” slinks in with ominous bass-and-organ undertow, distant strings, crashing waves and elegiac work from guitarist Grasshopper. The sinister “Lincoln’s Eyes” is sung by Donahue at a pitch so high that it approaches a castrato’s. Cats mewl in the background; a sirening guitar plays an endless descent. When the CD player’s clock actually stops — twice, after the album’s fourth and seventh songs — as ghostly intermission music continues to issue from the speakers, it’s somehow not surprising: This music stands outside of time.

Is the album’s title a reference to the lucid-dream practices of the Tibetan yogis, who work toward the “ultimate realization” that all is indeed dream? What are we supposed to make of the album sleeve, which is decorated in serpents and occult symbols, as well as the Gnostic name for the Supreme Being? Or the eerie fact that Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, an Arthurian fantasy that Donahue read as a child and from which he nicked the album’s opening song’s title, has on its dedication page the words “For Jonathan”? And what about the fact that legendary producer Jack Nitzsche — who has been described by Donahue as “the ghost of music past,” “a glass cobra” and “an unnatural human being” — died one week before he was to begin work on the album? Or that this, the darkest record yet by the band that is arguably America’s finest, was released on September 11, the darkest day in modern American history? And so on.

But that’s the thing with dreams and, often, life. The signals we receive are rarely clear and sometimes unpleasant, but we are fascinated — and deeply moved — nonetheless.

MERCURY REV | All Is Dream (V2) video: “Nite and Fog” (Mercuryrev.com)