Out There

Billy Bragg & Wilco
Mermaid Avenue Volume 2
(Elektra Records)

For weeks, the top of the pops has been dominated by pretty, empty heads whose mouths have been filled with pretty, empty words written by hacks who find inspiration in rhyming dictionaries. The teen market has taken over, and grown men and women flogging the ghosts of extant heroes and divine icons have no place in today's marketplace. Those who seek to read from the historical texts have been shoved to the margins of the margins. In a perfect world--one where grown-ups don't spend all their money buying CDs and concert tickets for their children--Wilco would be the most famous band this side of Sleater-Kinney, and Billy Bragg would be revered as a prophet, much less a singer-songwriter. Pity the next generation of adults; they've been born without the good-taste gene.

All it would take to shake them out of their thong-song, did-it-again-and-again reveries would be a single song, the first found on the second volume of songs written by Billy Bragg and Wilco--and the specter of Woody Guthrie, whose long-lost lyrics were discovered by the few men in this world who could do them justice. Guthrie's 1939 composition "Airline to Heaven" is as remarkable a piece of music, words and melody, as you will hear today, tomorrow, or forever. It begins as a whisper (you can't even hear it start, perhaps because it has traveled 61 years to get here) and builds into a roaring, hand-clapping, knee-slapping spiritual, with Jeff Tweedy as the tour guide to heaven. "Turn your eyes to the Lord of the skies," Tweedy sings in that beautiful, broken voice of his, sounding so much like a man straining against his limitations. "Take that airline plane / It will take you home again / Yes, to your home beyond the skies." Perhaps a song about the inevitability of death will not convert the non-believer, but it's such a joyous concoction that all but the dead and the deaf will be able to ignore its convictions.

That Volume 2 is better than its predecessor is hard to believe; any album that contains "California Stars" is unlikely to be bested. But the sequel has more kick, more bite, and, yes, more beauty. It's a polemic and a narrative, a rant and a whisper; it's a story told in 1950 more relevant today that it was a thousand yesterdays ago. It's a child's nursery rhyme ("I Was Born," sung by Natalie Merchant, who's found her true calling) and an adult's reminiscence ("Joe DiMaggio Done It Again"); it's Byrds melodies and blues riffs and folk rants and punk rock. It's pop music's discarded history resurrected by young men grown old before their time. And it's the best brand-new album you will swear you've listened to a hundred times before--echoes bottled up and made fresh every time you hear them.

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky