Mercury Rev: Deserter's Songs (1998)

It's hard to describe this one without also getting into the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin.  Recorded at roughly the same time with the same producer, both bands moving beyond their noisier indie rock roots and into more orchestral, ambient, almost prog-like territory, the albums share a lot of common ground.  I'm partial to Soft Bulletin, which had some of the Lips' finest material of their career, many stellar and shockingly moving songs; but Deserter, while more understated and even further removed from rock and roll, is often stunning as well.

Opener "Holes" establishes the mood, a lovely ballad with a portentous feel to it, sweeping yet personally effecting.  It builds up with dense orchestration and odd synth flourishes, but never strays from its gentle pulse.  "Opus 40" is probably the album's highlight, with a stirring melodic hook and again some interesting instrumentation thrown into the middle, but ultimately it's that hum-along melody that makes it such a near-masterpiece.  "Hudson Line" is much more upbeat, still a far cry from the band's noisier roots but keeps the album from drifting too far from a rock sound; and "Goddess on a Highway" is as close as the album comes to relatively straightforward pop, though augmented with the dense musical vibe that pervades the record.  The album closes with "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stump," which, as the title suggests, is a rousing foot-stomper, uncharacteristic of most of the album but a fun send-off after an emotional ride.

None of which is to slight the quieter ballads here; songs like "Endlessly," which at times calls to mind The Wizard of Oz, stoned in a field of poppies, are simply lovely.

For the most part, it's an album best suited for a late night with the lights dimmed and some headphones; it took me awhile to get into it, but I've really grown to appreciate it over the years, and probably consider it the band's artistic peak.

Here's the video for "Opus 40":
 ...and for "Goddess on a Highway":
Here's a video for "Holes":