Wilco – Mermaid Avenue, Volume II

Mermaid Avenue, Volume II

Reviving folk lyrics written 40 to 60 years in the past and setting them to new music is not something songwriters eagerly set forth to do. But, the first Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration of dusty Woody Guthrie lyrics did just that. The selected Guthrie songs of the first volume focused on more personal and lighthearted themes: a crush on a famous starlet, a fictitious encounter with Walt Whitman’s niece, a nonsensical children’s ditty, and a pastoral seduction song. And it worked beautifully. For Mermaid Avenue, Volume II, the team returned to the Woody Guthrie vault and extracted songs for one more volume equal in length to the first.
In this collection, however, the collaboration tackled more politically motivated Guthrie material, which in many cases without the music reads callow or even archaic – the stuff only dabblers in cultural history or front porch, tea-sipping, reminiscing codgers would find interesting. When Bragg sings, “I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller, but when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller,” his goal is to make Guthrie’s words shout once more to younger generations. The world 50 years ago was easier to yell at in a lyric than it is today, and many of these songs are colored with that black-and-white, us-against-them, “folk” tinge. Nevertheless, Bragg and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy pen tunes that shake the rust off these words making these songs every bit as unique and engaging as those in the first volume. Volume II has livelier numbers that are delivered crackling with blues and jumping in hoe-down country.
The format in Volume II follows the first closely: Tweedy and Bragg take turns at lead vocals while Wilco and a smattering of session players pack in the spaces around their voices. The playing here, as it was in the first collection, is graceful and authentic sounding, recalling to mind bygone Nashville session musicians that switch effortlessly from country to blues. These folks sound so good, so natural, I bet they could take any song and make it their own.
The beginning of the first track, “Airline to Heaven,” fades slowly in, as if to give fair warning that the style and playing on this collection is going to be a little faster, a little louder. A foot stomp starts the song, followed by a slight hesitation of an acoustic slide guitar that gets increasingly firm in its rhythm. Amidst the growing wash of two-stepping and slide guitar, Tweedy’s voice rises organically to deliver one of the most powerful lyrics in either collection, a modern hymn juxtaposing “current” technology with eternal salvation; “But to bow your head and pray is the only earthly way that you can fly to heaven on time.”
Several tracks on the album highlight Guthrie’s gritty insights. In “Feed of Man,” Tweedy’s angry monotone lashes out between syncopated rough blues and urgent wails of Bragg’s resonator guitar. In “Hot Rod Hotel,” Bragg’s deeper voice reveals a powerful disdain as he portrays an embittered janitor in a sordid motel: “A bloody flood could never messed these rooms up any worse.” In “Meanest Man,” Bragg certainly makes his bid for the title. His voice drips poison amidst a spare blues accompaniment thick with organ and his resonator guitar.
This album isn’t all blood and bitterness. In “Secret of the Sea,” Tweedy’s voice and music are pure pop, reminding me of old Nick Lowe or even ELO. Tweedy and Wilco also deliver the album’s prettiest song, bringing to life the deeply melancholic and romantic lyrics of “Remember the Mountain Bed.” Opening softly with Tweedy and an acoustic guitar, the song’s nine verses (making this the album’s longest song) swell around the lyrically vivid scenes with wistful piano and organ. In “Joe Dimaggio Done It Again,” Tweedy and Wilco get down playfully in some old-fashioned bluegrass-tinged country. Natalie Merchant adds her vocals to the children’s lyric in the forgettable “I Was Born.” The other song led by a guest vocalist, “Against th’ Law,” feels more appropriate for the album. I read that the vocalist, Corey Haris, is a well-known blues singer, and he certainly feels at home singing this lighthearted (and well-understood) complaint against the town of Winston-Salem, N.C.
For the most part, Wilco and Billy Bragg pull off the presentation of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics admirably. But there are a few lyrics that they can’t quite resuscitate. In “All You Fascists,” a howler of a blues song, no matter how powerful and convincing Bragg sings, I’m not moved by the naive good versus bad words. Bragg’s music to “My Flying Saucer” is fun early-80s-Mountain-Dew-commercial country, but it can’t compensate for the lyrics that are both silly and outdated.
I would recommend the album, as I would with the first volume. This second collection is more emotionally raw in both its lyrics and the kick the band delivers. It’s more ambitious, and the successes are easily the highlights of the entire two-volume work. Its failures … well, they’re still listenable. In the liner notes, Bragg writes there are still 2,000 unaccompanied lyrics left in Guthrie’s vault in New York City. Now that Bragg and Wilco have digested two albums’ worth so successfully, I would be very interested to hear someone else try and give a yell for Mr. Guthrie.