LONDON – “Sometimes years go by, it seems,” Jonathan Donahue sings within seconds of Mercury Rev’s ninth album, “The Light in You,” giving the first snapshot into the mental state of a band that has returned from the brink. Seven years, in fact, had passed since Mercury Rev last released a record, a period that has seen birth and rebirth, heartbreak, tragedy and natural disaster once again test the resolve of psych-pop’s great survivors.
“It’s been crazy,” guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak says on the phone from the Iceland Airwaves festival, which seems like an understatement in view of the catastrophe that befell Donahue in August 2011: The frontman’s New York home was a victim of Hurricane Irene. “It came through and destroyed Jonathan’s house,” Grasshopper says. “He had to move, his house was washed away with the waters. He got some guitars back as the water was rising fast, but he lost everything — his record collection, the original two track tapes to “Deserter’s Songs,” his computer, everything. It was crazy.”
The thought of Donahue rescuing his guitars as he desperately battles the conspiring elements is too apposite to ignore. Throughout a 25-year career, Mercury Rev’s songs of fragility, isolation, fractured relationships and love and loss have habitually been expressed through the prism of naturist allegory, and here was the conjurer of those images, living a scene that could have been lifted directly from his songbook. Grasshopper calls the incident a “weird cleansing”: possessions lost and hopes scattered, following the disappointing last album, “Snowflake Midnight,” it left the pair at year zero.
“We’d been working on songs, but most of them were lost forever. We had to start all over,” Grasshopper says.
Mercury Rev has been to the edge before. “See You on the Other Side,” their ill-fated third album and first without original troubled singer David Baker (a man whose erratic flights of fancy included heading to the bar mid-concert) had all but finished them off. Yet out of that last-throw-of-the-dice desperation came the band’s masterpiece, 1998’s “Deserter’s Songs,” so the eventual triumph of “The Light in You” should perhaps come as no surprise. Sharing the stately grandeur of “Deserter’s Songs,” with lavish arrangements and child-like melodies it is their most alluring set since 2001’s “All is Dream.” Yet the pair’s personal circumstances are inescapable: “The Light in You” is the sound of life’s ebbs and flows.
“It’s reflective of what we were going through,” Grasshopper says. “We had some great things happen, like my son was born, and he’s awesome. But there was other stuff. My mum had Alzheimer’s and was living with me as she was deteriorating and forgetting everything. Jonathan had known her for 20 years too, so it was really hard on both of us seeing her getting worse and worse, forgetting our names. Jonathan had his own personal things going on, too. So a lot of the lyrics are expressing crazy things happening to both of us. But that stuff happens to everyone. We tried to find the positive aspect of it.”
Grasshopper says that attitude inspired the album’s title — “it’s about finding that light inside you to carry on through the tragedy and find the positive” — and it’s true there are moments of jubilance, often found when celebrating music itself: “Are You Ready?” gazes wide-eyed at the wonder of “psychedelic rock and blue-eyed soul”, while “Rainy Day Record” canonizes the simple pleasure of listening to vinyl (“for the first time in forever/I hold my breath waiting for side two”). That is no coincidence. Even after a 30-year relationship, the pair communicates through sounds, saying in song what can’t be uttered face-to-face.
“That’s how we work. The lyrics are often between he and I,” Grasshopper says. “He’s speaking in metaphors, but I know what’s going on. We don’t talk a lot. In writing mode we just go and make the music. There’s not a lot of talking, but there’s a lot of feeling. In that aspect, it’s almost telepathic.”
As rock ‘n’ roll marriages go, Donahue and Grasshopper are great stayers. The sole survivors of the early incarnations of Mercury Rev that embraced the drug-fuelled psych-rock chaos that pervaded them, Grasshopper says their creative endurance is down to inquisitiveness.
“We’re always listening to different things, seeking out different things,” he says. “Constantly challenging each other on what we’re listening to, watching, reading. And it works well. We’ve had our blowouts too,” he insists, although the fact he can name all three of them hints at their infrequency. The biggest fight, he says, came making “Deserter’s Songs.”
“It was a big surprise when other people went on that journey with us,” he says. “People still say to me, ‘That got me through some tough things,’ but that’s what it was for us. In a way it was a last ditch effort. If it wasn’t received well the band would have been dead. But it did give us another lease on life.”
“The Light in You” is having a similarly restorative effect: Mercury Rev returns to Japan a band revitalized.
“What we love about Japan, aside from the technology and the gadgets, is how you can get lost wandering around, that feeling of getting lost in the craziness of the city. You can end up in places you never expected.”
Mercury Rev knows exactly how liberating that can be.
Mercury Rev plays Liquidroom in Tokyo on Dec. 1 (03-3499-6669) and Soma in Osaka on Dec. 2 (0570-200-888) Shows start at 7:30 p.m. and cost ¥6,800. For more information, visit www.creativeman.co.jp or www.mercuryrev.com.