BILLY BRAGG: MERMAID AVENUE (w. Wilco) (1998)
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.
It is, perhaps, ironic that when Nora Guthrie was deciding on the artist to whom she could entrust her father's trove of unused lyrics, she ended up with an Englishman. Was there really nobody in the United States in the mid-Nineties who could be considered the current reincarnation of Woody Guthrie? Come on now! Not anyone? Not even Eddie Vedder?..
Even Billy himself was a bit scared of the honor, and agreed to set Guthrie's lyrics to music only in collaboration with somebody more authentic. Eventually, his eye fell on Wilco, and since Jeff Tweedy was born in Illinois, which is at least somewhat closer to Woody's Oklahoma than Billy's East London could ever hope to be, and also because the Uncle Tupelo/early Wilco lineage was the closest to a raggedy, authentic, but still modern-sounding rootsy sound that you could get at the moment, a musical friendship was struck — and the result was Mermaid Avenue, an album of 15 modern roots-rock tunes set to hitherto unknown lyrics by Woody Guthrie.
First things first — these hitherto unknown lyrics, practically all of them, have such a contemporary feel and are so remote from Woody Guthrie, «the Dust Bowl hero», that I would not be at all surprised to learn that the whole thing was a big scam, or that at least the lyrics were seriously doctored by Bragg and Tweedy before reaching our ears. If it is not a scam, though — and who of us would want to seriously accuse the daughter of mystifications in the name of the father? — then the «non-public» Guthrie was simply a very different figure from the «public» Guthrie: far more intimate, romantic, and complicated than his officially released man-of-the-people stuff would suggest him to be. Pending proper linguistic expertise, let us assume that this is the case (in fact, I am only writing about this concern due to surprise that nobody anywhere has expressed the smallest shadow of doubt), and anyway, it does not matter that much because we are mostly concerned with Billy Bragg here, Wilco coming second and the Guthries only third.
Whatever be, it's a fun, engaging, and catchy record that utilizes Billy's and Jeff's talents to the fullest — the capacity for introspection, the sense of humor, the versatility in arranging and diversifying the material, it's all there. The music is roughly divided in half between Bragg and Wilco (represented by either Tweedy alone or the Tweedy/Bennett duo), and, as you could expect, the Bragg half is usually more sparse and closer to the classic folk idiom, whereas the Wilco songs often sound like outtakes from Being There, and this is good, since the shuffling principle allows to keep the proceedings diverse and mildly surprising until the end.
Accordingly, Bragg usually chooses the more repetitive, singalong tunes to set to music — such as the opening comical piece ʽWalt Whitman's Nieceʼ, imagined by him as a rowdy chunk of pub rock with the lads presenting an anti-thesis to each line ("last night or the night before that — I won't say which night", etc., and was that in the original lyrics, too, I wonder?), or the sorrowful acoustic ballad ʽEisler On The Goʼ — a counting-rhyme song about communist leader Gerhart Eisler's tribulations in a post-WWII Western world (I reckon) that was probably not intended by the original writer to sound so mournful, but then Eisler probably wasn't dead when Woody wrote it, and now he's been dead for 30 years; sufficient cause for sorrow.
On two songs, Billy invites old friend Natalie Merchant: she backs him up on the playful (if still a bit sad) ʽWay Over Yonder In The Minor Keyʼ and takes over lead vocals on ʽBirds And Shipsʼ, which is probably the worst decision on the record — unlike Bragg and Tweedy, Merchant is not endowed with a sense of humor (or, if she is, she puts it under lock and key when starting off for the recording studio), and her predictably broken-hearted delivery, perfect for the expectoration of 10,000 Maniacs-style liberal guilt, feels seriously out of place on this record. Still, a friend is a friend, I guess, and she did choose a song for which those plaintive intonations would seem natural outside of the general context of Mermaid Avenue.
Not to slight Billy, though, Wilco in general and Tweedy in particular steal the spotlight more often, starting with the very first number — ʽCalifornia Starsʼ is made into an immediate Wilco classic, what with that tricky way that Tweedy places the repetitive song title «outside» the main melody, creating the impression of one-breath continuity for his intellectual romanticism. ʽHoodoo Voodooʼ is transformed into a ʽSubterranean Homesick Bluesʼ-type rap number (the lyrics, coming in punctuated bursts of half-folk, half-proto-beatnik imagery, do suggest that kind of treatment); ʽAt My Window Sad And Lonelyʼ is made into an epic ballad that stops just short of becoming a «power» ballad by disallowing the presence of electric guitars; and ʽChrist For Presidentʼ is a delightful country stomp that Jeff delivers in an intentionally cracked, hoarse voice, but the real hero there is Jay Bennett, laying on layers of pianos and banjos, each of which sounds drunker than the other. Verily and truly, could a sober man ask for ʽChrist For Presidentʼ?
Mermaid Avenue is not a «great» record. Both for Bragg and for Wilco, this was a side project, and regardless of whether all the lyrics here are authentic original Guthrie or if some of them were edited, there is too little of the real Woody here to make the music (rather than the texts) of any importance to the Guthrie legacy. But it is at least as good as, say, a Traveling Wilburys record — pleasant, intelligent rootsy entertainment that strikes an impressive balance between tradition and modernism, and throws in the intriguing novel aspect of bringing together a British electro-busker, an American revolutionizer of the folk-rock idiom, and the Dust Bowl musical pioneer who, if this is to be believed, was secretly in love with Ingrid Bergman even after she dumped her husband for Roberto Rossellini. Then again, what sort of respect for the solemnity of family values do you expect from someone who had eight kids from three wives? Thumbs up for this shameless violation of the rules of decency.