Billy Bragg and Wilco

Billy Bragg and Wilco

Mermaid Avenue

Elektra

Old letters in a box. Stories and songs scrawled on pieces of paper, written in the late ’40s and early ’50s by one of America’s premiere songwriters. Paper yellowing, years passing. Notations in the margins about how the songs could be played, but no notes to show how they should be played. The tunes and melodies long gone with Woody Guthrie’s passing in 1967.

The songs were collected by Woody’s daughter Nora, and given to English folk singer Billy Bragg in 1995. The assignment: put the words to music, make the songs come alive. Billy enlisted the help of his American friends, Wilco. The result is the finest thing Bragg has attached his name to since 1988’s Worker’s Playtime.

Though this is Bragg’s project, some of the best moments belong to Wilco. Jeff Tweedy’s whiskey-parched vocals are perfectly suited for the drawn-out angst of songs like “At My Window, Sad and Lonely” and “Another Man’s Done Gone.” When the band loosens it up on tracks like “Hoodoo Voodoo” or “Hesitating Beauty” they reclaim the sloppy perfection of their first album, a.m.

With modern arrangements, Guthrie’s lyrics spring to life and display a certain sort of irony. In “Christ For President,” Guthrie claims Jesus as the poster-boy for the American left, showing that the carpenter from Nazareth proffered the ideals many in the left held dear: fairness, loving each other as brothers, and giving the little guy a chance. I won’t get into politics, but it’s a far cry from what the Religious Right stands for today.

With a long history of social activism and romantic balladering, Bragg was the obvious choice to helm this project. He and Guthrie share an unspoken understanding that the politics of the heart are not far removed from the politics of the state. “I treat horses good and am friendly to strangers,” Bragg sings in “The Unwelcome Guest.” Really, that’s all we can ask of anyone.

One has to wonder what Guthrie would think if given the chance to hear these songs, long forgotten, now given life. I’d have to think he’d be proud. In the rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor anthem that closes the album, he extends the invitation that Bragg and Wilco pick up; “One day they’ll catch me napping and kill me/I’ll be gone but that won’t be my end/My guns and my saddle will always be filled/by unwelcome travelers and other brave men.”

All in all, one of the best releases of the year.

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