Mercury Rev, after three poor-selling albums released between 1991 and 1995 came very close to calling it a day. What possibly saved them was that The Chemical Brothers had long been fans and had made a succesful approach to lead singer Jonathan Donahue to contribute a vocal to, and receive a writing credit for, the track The Private Psychedelic Reel which featured on the multi-million selling Dig Your Own Hole LP in 1997.
It not only brought Donahue to a wider audience than ever before but helped get him out of a creative lull in which he was showing no interest in writing any more material for his band. It also inspired him, and his band mate Sean Mackowiack, to try something different with the new material, moving away from rock guitars to a more gentle and melodic sound incorporating strings, horns and woodwinds along the way. It was something they had experimented with previously with one-off recordings not designed for commercial release.
The Chemical Brothers connection also led to renewed interest from record labels (the band had been dropped by Beggars Banquet in 1995) and a deal was struck with V2, the new label started up by Richard Branson with a decent budget afforded the recording process.
The album Deserter’s Songs was released in September 1998 to a fair bit of critical acclaim, helped by old friends The Chemical Brothers talking the record up in advance during the interviews they were giving to promote their live appearances at festivals over the summer months. Unusually, it was released without any single initially being lifted from it, a matter rectified the following month.
It transpired that this particular song was the best part of a decade old, having been written by Donahue during his time with The Flaming Lips, and having been forgotten about until being discovered on an old cassette tape. It was reworked beautifully into the style of music that Mercury Rev were encompassing for Deserter’s Songs.
The CD single came with two more tracks:-
The former, an instrumental,sounds exactly as the title would have you imagine….like a snippet that you would hear played in a nightclub scene of a movie set in the 1920s. It’s plain bonkers…..
The latter is a cover of the song written back in the 30s and made most famous by Art Garfunkel‘s cover which went to #1 in the UK in 1975. This version dates from a 1995 BBC session version on which there was a guest appearance by Sean O’Hagan, who first came to prominence as a founder member of Microdisney with Cathal Coughlan, before leaving to form The High Llamas and then in the mid 90s, becoming part of Stereolab. The recording may have been three years old, but it could now be seen as providing the pointer for the style that would be found on the new album.
Deserter’s Songs was named as album of the year for 1998 by NME. Anyone who had suggested that would be the case 12 months previously would have likely been locked up for their own safety.