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The Haunting Power of Mercury Rev's 'Delta Sweete Revisited'

Despite vocal embellishments from the likes of Vashti Bunyan and Hope Sandoval, this reimagining of Bobbie Gentry's 1968 album fails to replicate the original's best characteristics, but still presents an intriguing second look at a forgotten gem.

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Throughout the eleven tracks on Mercury Rev's Delta Sweete Revisited, you can almost feel dust swirl and hear boards creak. The album is a veritable haunted house, an amalgamation of memories and ghosts escaped from the attics of the past; and yet its existence is definitively a product of the modern era, when a single email can bring artists together, and when vocals can be recorded in one city and bounced to another in an instant.

Mercury Rev, via Partisan Records

That's what happened with Marissa Nadler, just one of twelve artists that the New York-bred five-piece recruited to sing its reinterpretation of Bobbie Gentry's relatively unsuccessful 1968 album Delta Sweete. Nadler received an invitation to be on the album via email, and recorded her vocals in her Boston bedroom over Mercury Rev's finished instrumental. Other members of the album's all-star lineup include Slowdive's Rachel Gloswell and Carice Van Houten, aka Melisandre from Game of Thrones.

In 1967, Bobbie Gentry's single "Ode to Billy Joe" kicked out the Beatles to reach No. 1 on the charts, but Delta Sweete—a surreal and grating portrayal of Southern life, which wound critical commentary on class divides over buoyant horns and fragmented dialogue—never took off. Though she had all the makings of a star, Gentry retired to a reclusive life after a stint in Vegas, never again releasing new music.

Bobby Gentry - Ode to Billy Joe www.youtube.com

Now, over a half-century since its original release, Mercury Rev have reimagined the album for our times. Lead singer Jonathan Donahue recalled listening to Gentry in the days of his youth in the Catskills, when the only way to listen to music was via the radio waves that managed to cut through the mountains. "It's more like a faded emotional Polaroid of the time," he said of Gentry's music in a recent interview. "It had a mystery to it that nothing else around it had."

Best known for their extraordinary Deserters' Songs, Mercury Rev has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past few years, embarking on reunion tours in celebration of the album's 20-year anniversary. Deserters' Songs is a remarkable collection of meditations on time and mortality, an album that launched the band to stratospheric fame.

Mercury Rev – Deserter's Songs [FULL ALBUM | HQ SOUND] www.youtube.com

Delta Sweete Revisited doesn't quite reach these heights. The album opens with Okolona River Bottom Band, which finds Norah Jones droning in harmony over jingling drums and ominous synthesizers. The song never totally hits its stride, remaining somewhat incohesive as it attempts to fuse too many genres together at once, but it's eerie and atmospheric enough to function as a persuasive invitation inside.

Next, Hope Sandoval's cover of Big Boss Man plants the Fade Into You singer's languorous vocals over a heady bassline, conjuring up images of solitary slow dances in shadowy rooms. Some of the album's other highlights include Penduli Pendulum, a duet between Vashti Bunyan and M83's Kaela Sinclair. Its lyrics paint a hypnotic journey through time and space, and Sinclair's background vocals form a haunting tapestry behind Bunyan's drawl.

Mercury Rev feat. Vashti Bunyan & Kaela Sinclair - Penduli Pendulum (Official Audio) www.youtube.com

Perhaps one of the album's best tracks is Jessye' 'Lisabeth, which finds Phoebe Bridgers' vocals approaching Enya-level dreaminess as she whispers over a spidery array of strings and woodwinds.

Jessye' Lisabeth www.youtube.com

Refractions features Marissa Nadler singing over a cloud of shrieking violins, theremin, echoing guitar, and pealing bells. I dreamed I was a crystal bird caught in perpetual flight, sings Nadler, and from there the song rises in a cloud of smoke, revealing the poetic spirals that form the heart of Gentry's lyrics. Released from the prism at last, I stepped upon a bit of shattered glass, it finishes.

Mercury Rev feat. Marissa Nadler - Refractions (Official Audio) www.youtube.com


Refractions www.youtube.com

That song acts as the album's core, its emotional climax. Afterwards, there's a sense of awakening, a lessening of the dreamy haze that edges into nightmare in the album's first few tracks. Its closer, Courtyard, lays Beth Orton's world-weary vocals over a delicate waltz. That song is a tribute to the promises of love, and instruments blossom around the steady foundation Olton's voice provides, culminating in perhaps one of the most unassumingly tragic lyrics ever: Patterns on a courtyard / illusions of all I'm living for.

If most of life is a sequence of mundanity and suffering, most music lovers would agree that music accesses something beyond the shadows of the real—that it touches on a part of existence that's more sublime than anything we can see with only our eyes. Mercury Rev's music has always hit close to this other world, accessing a rare kind of beauty that, when viewed in the stark light of this dimension, feels a bit haunted, a bit lost, far from home, but still laden with promises that there is something more to the world than what we can know through sight or conscious thought alone.

Mercury Rev feat. Beth Orton - Courtyard (Official Audio) www.youtube.com


Delta Sweete is not a perfect album. It lacks the feeling that infuses the original, opting for gloss where Gentry chose grit, a contrast particularly visible in songs like Mornin' Glory. And it doesn't do justice to the talents of its female vocalists, instead dousing their voices in an identical mix involving too much reverb, making them sound too similar, unable to access the unique highs and lows of their individual styles; the band would've done well to work more closely with its vocalists instead of tacking them on. And sometimes there are simply too many instruments, like on Parchman Farm, where an initially entrancing soundscape gets drowned out by dramatic orchestrations.

Bobbie Gentry - Mornin' Glory (Live at the BBC) www.youtube.com

Perhaps some of this disjointedness stems from the modern era's increasingly complex recording technologies, which allow for instant gratification and constant revision at the price of the earthiness that made recordings like the original Delta Sweete so irreplaceable.

But even so, the album still manages to touch upon the ineffable in places, and when it does, nothing else matters. In those places, in songs like Reunion, Penduli Pendulum, and Refractions, the music becomes a ship, offering transportation to byegone eras, handing out keys to strange doors. Part of this is thanks to the strength of the original material; part is thanks to the vocalists, and part is thanks to Mercury Rev's ability to create soundscapes multifaceted enough to act as prisms that, when hit with the right streak of light, can make rainbows flare up in the darkest of rooms.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Find her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.


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