Mermaids in America

There’s an argument to be made, and a good one, that the late ’90s Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg and Wilco rank among the most significant musical assemblies of late-era rock history. At any rate, this is critical stuff for those trying to understand the deeper emotional core of an America that’s either lost or forgotten, a land of simple gestures and empathies, a place where we regarded one another with some level of humanity and recognition of shared pain. It’s hard to remain in touch with that tradition without creative through-lines like the recordings that came out of this project. This is important, and the word “important” in inadequate.

I’m sure the argument’s been made.

The Woody Guthrie lyrics earn the headlines and accolades, of course, but the music too is as variegated as the loamy farmland we see from the windows of airplanes soaring cross-country. I think now of the quippy and endearing “My Flying Saucer,” which sets a jangly chord progression against shuffling campfire percussion evoking a halfway exotic mythos (featuring Jeff Tweedy on the cabasa for heaven’s sake). Toward the end of the second chorus, there’s a briefly psychedelic effect on the lead guitar, a twisting tendril on the high note (1:05), which leads into a thick down-tempo solo from Jay Bennett. It’s just that: the voodoo brew of Wilco’s in-studio experimentation with Bragg’s anti-imperialist polemics is just the sort of thing to brighten Guthrie’s legacy and shove it headlong into the turning of the millennium.

You see it again on “At My Window Sad and Lonely” from the first record, this layered and delicate landscape, windswept territory. And then in “Remember the Mountain Bed,” which takes some of Guthrie’s aching, sorrowful poetry and lays it on the lush textures of piano, organ, drum kit, the hollow heartbeat of a nostalgic and abandoned love.

Lush. What a word. It’s perfect here.

I walk above all pain.

***

I had the opportunity to interview Bragg in 2014 (I can still see myself navigating the international call on Skype, sitting in the publisher’s office at Scene while we were still at the West 9th Street address).

“Music still acts as a social medium. In the 20th century, it had a monopoly. It was the dominant social medium. It was the way that we spoke to one another as people. If you wanted to hear the voice of your generation, you knew where to listen,” he told me. “Now, that’s changed. There are many more people speaking and expressing their views on the Internet. But the fact that people are still willing to come see me play and listen to what I’ve got to say suggests to me that music’s still got that power. You know, we have something that you can’t get on the Internet. I think that thing might be communion.”

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