For reviewing purposes, this has been a particularly difficult album for me to get a handle on. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not familiar with any of Mercury Rev’s other albums. I’ve heard very good things about them for the past few years, but there are only so many hours in a day I can devote to listening to music and, perhaps more to the point, only so many dollars in my pocket with which to purchase said music. Mea culpa.
From a sonic standpoint, The Secret Migration is pretty much gorgeous from one end to the other. It’s a lush soundscape, filled with piano (acoustic and electric) and shimmering washes of other electronics from drummer Jeff Mercel, singer/songwriter Jonathon Donohue’s relentlessly melodic bass lines and damaged choirboy voice (not unlike that of Wayne Coyne, yet more naive), and atmospheric fills and the odd tastefully restrained solo from guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackiowiak. The sound of the album overall really appeals to the side of me that digs late-period Kate Bush. (Who, by the way, would sound right at home covering “In The Wilderness”. I know you’re in the studio, Kate; all I ask is that you think about it.) “Vermillion” would not seem out of place had it appeared on The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea; the insistent build of “Arise” is somewhat reminiscent of Echo & The Bunnymen. “Diamonds” ticks along like a hand-made watch, all spinning gears and glittering crystal.
You want themes? All right. Seasonal change, of a generally autumnal nature, is all over The Secret Migration. Nature imagery abounds throughout – leaves turn (“Vermillion”) and fall (“Secret For A Song”), seasons change (“In A Funny Way”, “My Love”), birds migrate (“Vermillion”, “First-Time Mother’s Joy”), rain “glimmers and falls / and lives on in diamond balls” (“Diamonds”), flowers bloom (“The Climbing Rose”), and behind it all, an “unseen force” (Vermillion”) “pulling strings” (“My Love”). “Through the fields and the streams and the lakes and the trees / And the grass and the logs run all my dogs / And I am home again” goes the chorus of Donahue’s run at Spectorian grandiosity, “In A Funny Way”. It’s not exactly a wall of sound – maybe a cyclone fence of sound, one you can see through and, if need be, climb over, all driven ever upward by the spiraling bass line.
Running under all that natural wonder, however, is a current of loss and regret. As Donahue says in the opener, “Secret For A Song”, “We’re off for a dark country ride”. It is a pastoral album, but not necessarily a peaceful one. If I’m reading things aright, the protagonist of The Secret Migration has experienced some great loss, partially at least due to his own actions (“White Horse”, which waves the inevitable drug flag, at least for me) or inactions (“I never gave you enough / I could have given you my love”, from “My Love”), and seeks solace and healing in the contemplation of nature’s inescapable rhythm (pretty much everything else on the record). Or something like that. Donohue said almost as much himself in a short interview he gave to Uncut magazine earlier this year: “A lot of us at that time (the album was made) were going through some pretty heavy stuff.” And the lyrics would seem to bear that out. The lament of “My Love”, followed by the benediction of “Moving On”, forms the emotional center of the album. (Actually, they would have made a much more logical appearance as the last two tracks rather than falling in the middle of the disc. Hearing four more songs after those two seems a little anti-climatic, although the hymnal nature of “Down Poured The Heavens” is a nice note on which to go out.)