Wilco – Mermaid Avenue (With Billy Bragg)

Mermaid Avenue (With Billy Bragg) (1998)

B+

1. Walt Whitman’s Niece 2. California Stars 3. Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key 4. Birds And Ships 5. Hoodoo Voodoo 6. She Came Along To Me 7. At My Window Sad And Lonely 8. Ingrid Bergman 9. Christ For President 10. I Guess I Planted 11. One By One 12. Eisler On The Go 13. Hesitating Beauty 14. Another Man’s Done Gone 15. The Unwelcome Guest

 

You know Woody Guthrie never wrote an original melody in his life? He set just about all his lyrics to melodies he recycled from old folk songs. For him, it was mostly about the words, you know? He always needed a co-writer. So the fact that the songs on Mermaid Avenue were “co-written” 30 years after his death? Minor details.

Some background: Woody’s daughter Nora approached lefty British troubadour Billy Bragg about composing some new music to go with a few choice selections out of the vast stockpiles of previously unheard Guthrie lyrics. Bragg then approached Wilco about backing him up and writing some of their own music for the project. The result: these are now probably the most well known Woody Guthrie songs to people under 30 other than “This Land Is Your Land.” “Woody Guthrie? He did ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ right? Oh wait, no, that was Hank Williams. Hey, anybody wanna smoke a bowl?”

So I guess Operation: Introduce Woody to the Young Whippersnappers was at least something of a success. If they really wanted to go for broke, they should’ve gotten the Backstreet Boys or someone like that to do it. But no, they had to get “respectable” musicians instead. Yeah, let’s see Wilco navigate its way through the 5-part harmonies of “I Want It That Way” (I wouldn’t be optimistic, judging from Tweedy’s struggles with the Black Eyed Peas). OK, I’m sure both Bragg and Wilco were a bit hipper back in the late 90s than they are now (I wouldn’t know; I was seven. All I cared about were the Yankees and Pokémon). And, for the most part, they were both up to the task. For Bragg’s part, if nothing else, he certainly holds true to Woody’s closely-held philosophy of, “If you play more than two chords, you’re showing off.” I’ve heard very little of Bragg’s music outside of these two Woodilco records, but judging from what I have heard, he’s not the most imaginative songwriter in the world. He sticks mostly to the most basic, overused folk chord changes possible, and his thuggish-sounding English brogue is often an impediment to the songs’ natural melodic qualities. He begins to wear on me a bit during the moments when he gets all worked up, which entail him deploying pub gang vocal sing alongs (the woozy opener “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” rabble rouser “I Guess I Planted”). But his quieter songs are all winners, particularly “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key,” perhaps the album’s overall strongest song, and the solo acoustic shorty “Ingrid Bergman,” which is probably the prettiest, most brilliant masturbation song ever written.

Having watched the documentary about the making of this record, Man In The Sand, it’s obvious that Bragg and Tweedy had different visions of how it should end up. Bragg thought it was important to reflect Woody’s political legacy, so most of the songs he chooses are all about fascists and unions and shit like that, while the Tweedy-sung songs are about girls and stuff. They also clashed over the album’s mix, and eventually came to enough of an impasse that they had to have a third party come up with the final track listing. Bragg ultimately got his way with the mix, which is frankly weak; it’s flat and plastic, the organs sound chintzy, and some of the performances come off a bit goofy and ramshackle – though I suppose ultimately charming (“Christ For President”). There’s only one song with any electric guitar, too – hey, Woody didn’t use ‘em, so why should we, right? But Wilco’s personality shines through nonetheless, largely thanks to Tweedy’s uncanny adeptness at selecting lyrics that aren’t at all removed from his usual MO, and pairing them with music that fits them to a tee. “At My Window Sad And Lonely” and “One By One” sound exactly like the kind of sad sack lost love songs he was writing himself around this time. I’d have never guessed he didn’t write the lyrics – and what could be a bigger compliment? “One By One,” buoyed by Bob Egan’s haunting pedal steel, is especially beautiful. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have expected him to delve into Woody’s deep backlog of children’s songs, but “Hoodoo Voodoo” adds some well-appreciated levity to the album. The riff is directly ripped off from “Lady Madonna,” but I’m pretty sure Paul McCartney ripped it off from some old blues song in the first place. So if you ask me, that makes it OK. I must also make mention of the absolutely stunning “Another Man’s Done Gone.” It’s a workin’ man’s eulogy, and is accordingly unpretentious – just a minute and a half of piano, voice, and a bit of humble self-reflection. I’d be glad to be remembered by it myself.

Ultimately, the Bragg/Wilco alliance didn’t turn out to be a totally synergistic one – Bragg and Tweedy didn’t even bother working on syncing up their harmonizing on “The Unwelcome Guest,” which is, regardless, an excellent, aching ballad. But the really important thing for the participants in this experiment was to find synergy with the ghost of Woody Guthrie – somehow, they managed to pull it off.