Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 6)

This unusual but appropriate project was sort of the end of the road for me with Billy Bragg, sadly. His post-Mermaid Avenue albums never resonated, but I still have tremendous love and respect for him. As it is, this effort (and its follow-up album) was a fun and admirable diversion from his usual body of work, and sits pretty comfortably alongside his original material.

What I Think of This Album

Bragg as the spiritual heir of Woody Guthrie – despite the ocean that separated them – is reasonable and fitting. Wilco as collaborator seems more like a concession to popularity than to a recognition of any strong ties on their part to folk or Americana, though they are capable of adopting the pose of a modern-day Band. And the conceit of humanizing Guthrie and breaking free of the rigid notions that he has been held in is worthwhile, though I still don’t think that this goal justifies the inclusion of nonsense song “Hoodoo Voodoo” or the love letter to “Ingrid Bergman.”

Overall, I think this project would have been better executed if someone – namely, Bragg – had exerted more control; instead, what we get are the Bragg songs and the Wilco songs, with the Bragg material more faithful to spirit of Guthrie and the Wilco songs sounding like, well, Wilco songs, but neither quite natural because the words being sung are Guthrie’s. Divorced from any context, most of the songs are excellent, and that’s what really matters anyway.

“California Stars” is a wonderful slice of unaffected, bucolic pop. “Walt Whitman’s Niece” has a cheeky, wooly randiness to it. And “Way Over Yonder In the Minor Key” is sweetly nostalgic, though I have to say I can’t stand Natalie Merchant’s vocals, which is what dooms the spare, slow “Birds and Ships.” As pointless as the alleged children’s song “Hoodoo” is, the musical arrangement is excellent, with Jay Bennett expertly playing the Farfisa. “She Came Along to Me” is a jaunty feminist ditty with a cool slide guitar part, and Jeff Tweedy ably inhabits the faithfully titled “Sad and Lonely.” That said, his gravelly take on “Christ for President,” and the attendant clavinet and piano, makes the song sound inauthentic and unserious.

Bragg is right at home on the pro-labor “I Guess I Planted,” with Wilco providing lively backing. Tweedy intones deeply – perhaps not the right approach on the otherwise romantic “One By One” – as if trying to match the grandeur of the organ, pedal steel, and Ken Coomer’s booming drums. Guthrie’s surprising ambivalence on “Eisler On the Go” is the most noteworthy element of this somber, reflective, and repetitive track, though the melodica is not a waste. “Hesitating Beauty” is another fine, sunny love song (“By the stars and clouds above / We can spend our lives in love / You’re a hesitating beauty, Nora Lee”). Closing outlaw ballad “The Unwelcome Guest” is right in Bragg’s wheelhouse, and he launches it all the way to Wall Street, where it hopefully takes out more than a few capitalists.

The Best Thing About This Album

“California Stars,” but it could be easily dethroned by “Hesitating Beauty.”

Release Date

June, 1998

The Cover Art

Below average. The placement of the artist names and album title is all wrong, as is the font for the title. The washed out grey tones of the photo suggest a different framing would’ve been wise:  did we need the building on the left, the building on the right, and the wide swath of asphalt in the shot? We did not.

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