Recording of September 1998: Mermaid Avenue

BILLY BRAGG & WILCO: Mermaid Avenue
Elektra 62204-2 (CD). 1998. Billy Bragg, Wilco, Grant Showbiz, prods.; Jerry Boys, eng.; Nora Guthrie, exec. prod. AAD? TT: 49:42
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

You gotta give Billy Bragg and Wilco credit. Not only did they interrupt their respective careers for this admittedly intriguing side project, they also dissected and shoved their hands deep into the guts of one of this country's more contradictory musical personalities: Woody Guthrie. The idea was to hit a horribly difficult trifecta: pay homage to Guthrie's spirit, create their own particular musical statements, and ultimately find a way to collaborate with a dead man.

Mermaid Avenue—named for the street Guthrie lived on in Coney Island—was engendered by Woody's daughter Nora, who brought a trove of his unpublished lyrics to English political balladeer Bragg, who in turn enlisted the support of alt-country rockers Wilco, particularly the band's songwriters, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett.

But how to write music for Guthrie's words and reinvigorate his complex legacy? Which Guthrie, for example, do you emphasize: the socially conscious balladeer who painted "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar and wrote "This Land is Your Land," or the one misfit who ran afoul of the law for amateur pornography and who, by many accounts, was a less than charming personality? Even more vexing is the problem of envisioning Guthrie and his music backed by a rock band.

Fortunately, the result of this unlikely seance is a disc that stands alone as a work unto itself, not beholden to Guthrie's memory or the ongoing careers of either Bragg or Wilco. Instead of a noble flop, which seemed the most likely outcome, Mermaid Avenue is one of the best things that Bragg, Wilco—and, yes, even Guthrie—has ever recorded. Engineered by Jerry Boys, who's also responsible for the equally true- and deep-sounding Buena Vista Social Club project (footnote 1), the sound here is uniformly excellent.

From the opener, the Bragg-sung "Walt Whitman's Niece," which details the escapades of two proverbially drunken sailors, it's clear that, at least in the Bragg-penned tunes, Guthrie's darker side will be a big part of what's to come. The graphic "Ingrid Bergman," in which her beauty makes a mountain "quiver" as fire flies from its crater and it yearns for the actress "to touch its hardrock," is Guthrie at his most nakedly erotic.

A more wistful side of his character appears in another Bragg tune, one of this disc's minor masterpieces, "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," in which Guthrie offers pointed self-criticism as well as a bittersweet glance back at youth. This song also contains this disc's most onomatopoeic lyrical couplet, "We walked down by the Buckeye Creek / to see the frog eat the goggle-eye bee." Natalie Merchant, who sings background vocals on this tune before stepping out for a solo turn on Bragg's "Birds and Ships," also seems especially inspired by this project. Not always the most compelling solo artist, Merchant nevertheless adds a delicate but very noticeable vocal presence to "Minor Key."

Tweedy and Bennett seem to have been able to lose themselves more effectively here, stretching more as songwriters, trying to anticipate Guthrie. Bragg, when unsure (as in "I Guess I Planted"), slips into a songwriting mode quite obviously his own. The Wilco-penned tunes tend to be more upbeat and more evocative of the dustbowl/Americana ethic that was such an intregral part of Guthrie's art. The gentle, dreamy "California Stars" has just the right amount of plunk and shuffle. The cartoonish "Hoodoo Voodoo," in which Guthrie steps through the looking glass and writes jabberwockery, is set to a loopy tempo and goofy melody that seem indelibly right from the first bars. And Tweedy's dry, near-hoarse vocals are dead-on throughout.

The process of trying to write music to fit an idol's long-tuneless lyrics—it's assumed by everyone involved that Guthrie took with him to the grave whatever melodies he'd planned for these words—also opened up some unexpected songwriting directions. Composed by Bragg and sung by Tweedy, the short "Another Man's Done Gone" is so like Randy Newman it's uncanny.

The most polished and thoughtful of Guthrie's lyrics is the closer, "The Unwelcome Guest." With music by Billy Bragg and vocals by Bragg and Tweedy, the song revisits Guthrie at the height of his 1930s heyday, when he was a rail-riding hobo whose songs about social injustice inflamed not only the US government (who branded him a red), but, years later, ignited as well the passions of the young Bob Dylan. One listen to the lyrics and it's obvious that here was a Guthrie hit-in-waiting, the kind of tune he desperately needed in the last two decades of his life, when his fame was sinking and his health steadily declining.

The question of whether Bragg and Wilco have brought this tune to fruition is just a smaller version of the shadow that hangs over the entire project: Have they done Guthrie justice? Have they caught some of his lightning-bug spirit in a jar? For me, the fact that they created such a distinct record, whether or not it fulfills whatever expectations anyone had, is tribute enough to this American original.—Robert Baird

Footnote 1: And some well-engineered albums featuring Stereophile's JA on bass guitar that sunk without trace in the mid '70s.