It Holds Up: Billy Bragg & Wilco -‘Mermaid Avenue’

Posted: by The Editor

There are few albums that have captured the purity of songwriting that comes close to the work on Mermaid Avenue. Mermaid Avenue revived songs that were unreleased by Woodie Guthrie and then given to Billy Bragg and Wilco by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. What resulted was a masterful take on the pure simplicity of instrumentals. Nothing too fancy or elaborate, just the pure talent that these musicians had to breathe new life into these beautiful songs.

Probably the most notable song off the record “California Stars” is only the 2nd track on the record. Kicking off with Billy Bragg’s signature twangy vocals, steely guitars and overall engulfing strings with a perfect brush of percussion to tie the track together. The lyrics begin with “I’d like to rest/My heavy tonight on a bed/of California stars” which are simple, but light and airy. The rest of the track feels exactly like that, very light, fun, folky and easy to listen to. Your body kind of sways to the rhythm of the guitars as it comes to a close with a guitar solo.

One of the more toned down tracks “Birds and Ships” exemplifies why this record is so special. The 2 instruments being only guitar and vocals. Sung by Natalie Merchant, her voice is subtle. The guitar holds a lot of weight to the track. It feels like a folk song that would be sung around a fisherman’s ship. The simplicity of the track allows for the instruments to shine through, showcasing their near perfection and dedication to the craft of Guthrie’s songwriting.

Other tracks such as “At My Window Sad and Lonely”, “Eisler on the Go”, “Another Man is Dead and Gone” showcase the range that Bragg and Wilco have in their interpretation of these songs. The twang in “At My Window Sad and Lonely” helps to support the melancholy lyrics. Steely guitars and excellent harmonic vocals create what would normally be a depressing track into one that warrants sympathy. Although heartbreaking, the track allows itself to be vulnerable, even with bold instrumentation.

On the contrary, “Eisler on the Go” is a call for help. Simple guitar and vocals, similar to the style of “Birds and Ships”, Bragg’s amazing vocals, and reverb-y guitars allow for the track to open up as the track plays on. Repeating “I don’t know what I’ll do” throughout the entire track, as if there’s a notion of someone shaking their head in frustration. The circling guitar riffs mimic that as well creating this sense of dread or looping irritation that the lyrics provide. Second to last track, “Another Man is Dead and Gone” feels straight from Woodie Guthrie’s notebook. An ode to those who come in and out of our lives. Although a short track, it packs a lot of punch in its lyricism and stripped down instrumentals. The piano just provides the melody while the vocals develop the emotional intensity of the lyrics meaning.

The way that this collaboration of musicians interpreted these songs pays homage to folk songwriting with a contemporary twist. Sticking to the bare bones of sounds while layering others on top of build up the sound make these tracks exquisite. The narrative quality of the lyrics balanced with thought-over guitars, piano, and other instruments make each track feel unique. However, collectively as an album, it feels like an anthology of American folk music. Something that at times can feel lost in the era of technology. Billy Bragg and Wilco did create a second life for Guthrie’s songs to live in on Mermaid Avenue. Making this record a very special project that surpasses the time that these songs were written.

Sarah Knoll

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