1.5 out of 5 stars
The saying goes “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But in music the album sleeves can say a lot, and that’s certainly the case with Snowflake Midnight, the latest release from indie veterans Mercury Rev. Supposedly named after two girls’ ponies, its cover shows a dark close-up of a wide-eyed bunny. Even a casual listen shows how appropriate this imagery is; the album’s lyrics and song-titles are chock-full of butterflies, flowers and a million other cutesy objects set in a chilly sonic landscape.
This would all be fine if the band recognized the ridiculousness of it all. Instead, they come off as wholly oblivious to it, treating the childish backdrop as a launching pad for one of the most ambitious efforts of their career. The band’s website describes the album as “a mirror in a mirror in a mirror,” and the songs as “completely unique.” Since enjoyment of this record is directly proportional to how seriously the listener can take the Rev, this pretentious and over-the-top self-aggrandizing makes enjoying the album a struggle.
But it’s not all bad. Snowflake Midnight finds Mercury Rev once again re-inventing its sound, this time as something that could reasonably be called tweetronica. The album’s psychedelic ambience is accentuated by electronic blips and bubbling synths. It’s hardly a groundbreaking approach, but the Rev adds its own touch to it, and at times it really works. This is especially true for the dynamic “Butterfly’s Wings,” where the band manages to cram the best of its new sound into a four-minute blast of radio-friendly pop.
The successes don’t quite end there. There’s the repetitive glow of “Senses on Fire,” the eerie spoken-word bit on “October Sunshine” and the torrent of strings and synthesizers that closes “Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower.” But despite these highlights, the record rarely gets into any consistent groove. Every time it seems on the verge of a breakthrough, up comes something like “October Sunshine,” where outdated synths make it sound like the soundtrack to a Discovery Channel special from the ’80s.
Snowflake Midnight tries hard to evoke a childlike appreciation of natural beauty, but that’s a hard point to communicate over serious musical missteps. The hilariously bad bass on “Runaway Raindrop,” for example, begs to be compared to a misplaced whoopee cushion. And how about “Snowflake in a Hot World,” where lead singer Jonathan Donahue belts out a roaring eulogy to a melting snowflake. There’s probably a deep metaphysical message buried somewhere in the lyrics, but on the surface they’re just embarrassing.
It’s unfair to approach the album as merely a hit-or-miss pop record because it certainly doesn’t lack identity. It’s supposed to be an intricately crafted artistic statement, and the gushing descriptions on the band’s website confirm as much. But this is Mercury Rev, not Pink Floyd. “Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower” is no “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V).” With a collection of songs that simply aren’t very good, Snowflake Midnight largely comes off as mawkish, melodramatic and trite.