Back to the '90s: Mercury Rev revives psych-rock with 1991's 'Yerself Is Steam'

Perhaps no other drug has impacted popular music quite as much as LSD. Sure, you can make a case for marijuana or ecstasy, but the music they inspired is mostly just mellow or trancey. It took a hit of acid to make rock ‘n’ roll psychedelic.

Everyone knows about the original ’60s psychedelia, largely popularized by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and further explored by legions of garage rockers like Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Electric Prunes. Then there were the groups that revived the sound in the ’90s, including the Flaming Lips and Olivia Tremor Control.

Though they were lesser known, Mercury Rev may have created the first bonafide psych-rock masterpiece of the ’90s with the 1991 release “Yerself Is Steam.” Plumbing the same depths as their contemporaries and collaborators the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev delved a bit deeper and came up with a more expansive sound than Wayne Coyne and company.

The album starts innocently enough with the swirly semi-acoustic “Chasing a Bee,” but once the charmingly named “Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t’ th’ Center of Yer Heart” gets going the tone has become darker and more furious. By “Very Sleepy River” it’s clear that whatever trip these guys were on has ended up on a boat looking for Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Thankfully, the album ends on a lighter note with “Car Wash Hair (The Bee’s Chasing Me)” bringing us right back to where we started.

Then again, psychedelia was never all about sunshine and rainbows. “Yerself Is Steam” speaks to the truth that sometimes an acid trip can take you on a journey into a heart of darkness.

— Nicholas Coleman

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