Out There

Made for you and me

Mermaid Avenue
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Elektra Records

As music-biz gimmicks go, this one's high-brow: Leftie punk-folk Billy Bragg and alt.country.pop.rockers Wilco writing and performing music built around lyrics unrecorded by songwriter-of-the-people Woody Guthrie. It's a disc that screams important; might as well hold the top spot on those year-end critics' polls--we have a winner. Yet the revelation of Mermaid Avenue, named for the street in Coney Island where Guthrie lived, is its bawdy humor and sweet whimsy. If you didn't know the names attached, if you had never heard Bragg's own version of Guthrie's Communist musical manifestos or Jeff Tweedy's brand of roots revisionism, you'd almost be tempted to mistake it for lightweight. After all, among the highlights is Wilco's beaming rave-up "Hoodoo Voodoo," one of Guthrie's tossed-off children's songs.

But the charm of Mermaid Avenue is that, like Guthrie's best songs, its surface pleasantries are deceptive. There's nothing more dangerous than a singalong with razor-sharp lyrics; you cut yourself every single time. And so Bragg's "Eisler on the Go" is at once a beautiful daydream and a harrowing nightmare, a song in which Guthrie imagines switching places with socialist composer Hanns Eisler, who wrote the scores for so many Hollywood hits, as he is grilled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. "I don't know what I'll do," Bragg moans, and behind him, Wilco provides a mournful whine.

Yet the album opens with Bragg and Tweedy as two sailors recalling (barely--theirs is a mighty hangover) a night spent drinking and chasing tail and reading poetry between the sheets. "The girl took down a book of poems / Not to say which book of poems," they sing, their woozy voices blended like single-barrel whiskey. "As she read, I laid my head / And I can't tell which head/Down in her lap..." Bragg then degenerates into spoken-word ramblings about how the girl claimed to be "Walt Whitman's Niece," though which one, she wouldn't say. Or the sailor can't remember.

After "Walt," Mermaid Avenue becomes a pastiche of love songs ("She Came Along to Me"), fuck fantasies (Bragg imagines making love to Ingrid Bergman on an island), righteous indignation (Tweedy growls and grins his way through "Christ for President"), and wrenching confessionals ("Another Man's Done Gone"). The words are Woody's, but the music sounds as it should, a perfect split between Bragg's folk croak and Wilco's wide-open rock and roll; it's a cross between Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy and Being There, and two better albums you won't find. Unless, perhaps, it's one named Mermaid Avenue.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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