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Alternative & Indie - Released January 1, 2009 | Co-operative Music

It's funny how love can be both incredibly intimate and universal-feeling at the same time. Mercury Rev try to express this paradox on their first album in four years, The Secret Migration, and if any band could capture that dichotomy, it's them: on Deserter's Songs and All Is Dream, they found a way to blend the epic sound that they'd been known for since the days of Boces and See You on the Other Side with more personal songwriting. Unfortunately, they don't quite achieve this tricky balancing act this time. Jonathan Donahue's diary-quality songwriting and Dave Fridmann's glossy, intrusive production work against each other, resulting in a collection of bland songs that feel overdone yet incomplete. Over time, Donahue has gone from being an extremely abstract lyricist to a remarkably literal one; even though Secret Migration's first few songs dress up his sentiments in Renaissance Faire frippery and nature imagery (the meandering "Black Forest (Lorelei)" begins, "If I was a white horse/An' offered you a ride/Thru a black forest..."), throughout the album his thoughts about love's healing powers are straightforward, almost to the point of being generic. He tones down the fairy-tale wordplay as the album goes on, but the painfully earnest feeling remains on songs like "My Love" and the self-helpy snippet "Moving On" ("Just move ahead, it won't be long/And it'll be brighter"). Donahue and the rest of the band deserve some credit for being so emotionally naked, but the lyrics are so intimate and personal that they're insular -- in some ways, it's easier to connect to words like "Wanna ask but I just stare/Can I run my hands through your car wash hair" than "Down Poured the Heavens"' "I praise the god sublime/Who let this fallen angel/I into this world of mine." The problems with the album's lyrics and Donahue's squeakier-than-ever vocals are even more glaring because The Secret Migration is so bland musically. The band's sound is as epic and ethereal as ever, but it's also surprisingly easy to tune out -- it often feels like an AOR-friendly version of All Is Dream, and the electronic percussion and drum loops on several tracks feel dated and fussy. For a few moments, the album soars: "Across Yer Ocean" and "Vermillion" have enough musical movement that the cringe-worthy words aren't as noticeable. The syrupy-sweet "First-Time Mother's Joy (Flying)" takes the opposite approach, with restrained sonics and lyrics that are so unabashedly sentimental that they actually are pretty affecting. "In a Funny Way" is hands-down The Secret Migration's best track, capturing the joy the rest of the album wants to convey with a mildly trippy, sitar- and brass-driven arrangement that nods to Mercury Rev's musical past without rehashing it. However, most of the album consists of near-misses like "Arise" and "Climbing Rose," both of which are pretty but just don't have much musical or emotional impact. The Secret Migration is oddly too conventional and too quirky; it's another paradox that this album, which in its own way is Mercury Rev's happiest album, is also, sadly, the weakest of their career. ~ Heather Phares