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Mercury Rev – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

After four quiet years, beloved American indie masters Mercury Rev have released an album consisting of exactly its name. Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited is a reimagination of the Mississippi singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 record. The 2019 revisit adds lush instrumentation, modern production and a greater focus on ambience across its 12 tracks. A slew of vocalists feature on a track by track rotation, from the powerful and emotional to the delicate and sultry. All of the vocalists neither imitate nor disregard Gentry’s unique voice, walking the line of individuality well. However, much of the immersion in the original work came from Gentry’s intimate and sincere singing style, and while the album’s ambitious arrangements add an element of grandeur to the mix, for the most part Mercury Rev’s takes aren’t capable of sustaining interest.

The opening title track, “Okolona River Bottom Band”, is arguably the best track on the record. Jazzy piano, orchestral flair, and even synthesized lines make up the cut, with the legendary Norah Jones adding rich and spellbinding vocals. Huge organ chords also provide a foundation for the track, a tonal quality rarely seen in original tracks of Gentry. As is a staple across Revisited, grand building sections are seen consistently in order to add contrast and musicality. Lush harmony fills out the mix and reinforces the fuller, more modern temperament of this renewal.

The following cut “Big Boss Man”, featuring Hope Sandoval, is a somewhat simpler take on the original song by Gentry. Mercury Rev do slow the song down considerably, but through the lively Rhodes keyboard and string sections, the structure and feel of the original is not lost. Patterings of electric guitar and vocal effects such as whistling do seperate the track from its previous incarnation, while the overall emotional content of the song is preserved though Sandoval’s vocal execution.

While “Reunion” ditches the infectious clicking intro of the original, a more ambient, tasteful version takes its place. Rachel Goswell provides a less abrasive performance than Gentry’s initial take, while drawn out, repeated vocals propel the track forward. Strings and harmonica float through the track, adding a certain elegance to the overall song, in line with the original cut. Following this, in “Parchman Farm”, the band fleshes out the track’s instrumentation with catchier blues riffing as opposed the the brass-heavy original. It slowly builds in various sections to include flutes, sitar and bells in the mix. Additionally, the song consistently transitions into stripped-back sections, over which vocalist Carice van Houten is able to shine.

“Mornin’ Glory” actually stays relatively true to the track recorded 50 years prior, with gentle shifts between soft piano/string duets and more upbeat acoustic guitar driven sections. Laetitia Sadier provides some classically rooted vocals, projecting the lyrics into a more modern setting. Lead single “Sermon” is almost psychedelic in its use of theremin-like tones and spaced-out, thick textures. Here, singer Margo Price nails a certain tone of older soul/rock music that gives her performance far more weight than others on the record. A swirling orchestra and random screeches form the majority of the song, over which the extremely prominent and passionate vocals of Price reside. This song perhaps encapsulates the aim of the album best, with the modern rendition incorporating characteristics that are quintessentially Mercury Rev, and challenging the basic vibe of Gentry’s original. Here, the band slows “Sermon” down to create a relatively eerie track from an upbeat and almost jovial cut.

“Tobacco Road” generally stays true to the sections of the original song, but blurs the lines between time signature changes and abrupt cuts. Rather than adopt the choppy, yet cool vibe of the original song, the band ensure smooth transitions from verse to the strung out “tobacco road”, and give way to a free-flowing and continuous track. While the rhythms are somewhat more rock based, the overall tone of the album is retained in the expressive string sections which are sprinkled throughout. Following on from two relatively weak tracks in “Penduli Pendulum” and “Jesseye’ Lisabeth”, “Refractions” retains its jazzy atmosphere, with the sultry voice of Marissa Nadler effortlessly gliding over the expected sound of the cut. Opening with a wash of chimes, Nadler’s perfect and strong vibrato builds upon the powerful bass movements and repeated crescendo sections. Synthesized effects and a mighty electric guitar are just some of the vast arrangement heard.

After the slow-moving penultimate track “Courtyard”, album closer “Ode To Billie Joe” covers Gentry’s original hit from an earlier release – stretched out to create the longest cut on the record. Lucinda Williams is afforded space for iconic lines such as “and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge”, and while they drown, unnaturally, in reverb, the song is overall a decent approach to the popular track. A long instrumental outro rounds this track and the album out.

All things considered, the left-of-field idea and execution that is Revisited gives way to an intriguing first listen. The heavy reverb on instrumentation is one of the most noticeable differences in regards to the original, and when paired with denser instrumentation, the album becomes something entirely unique, though rooted somewhat in Gentry’s original emotions. But while 50 years on, The Delta Sweete is considered a classic, it is unlikely Mercury Rev’s jam-packed, modern reproduction will garner the same following.