Jonathan Wilson by Magdalena Wosinska
[TL;DR: I have no idea why. It doesn’t make any sense.]
I was going to do one of those “top ten albums of 2018” listicles, but I procrastinated too much over the holidays and never got around to it. The thing was, I had dozens of albums that I loved in 2018, far more than ten, but it was like I had a clear #1 hands-down favorite and everything else was simply after it and in no particular order beyond that. However, in the past few days I’ve found myself clicking through the top 100 lists at several of the music blogs I frequent and I was a little shocked—and frankly annoyed—that what I felt was, without the slightest doubt, the single best thing released all year was not only given critical short shrift, it was hardly afforded any shrift whatsoever.
And the album I refer to, is, I can assure you, one of those affairs where you could not possibly be exposed to it—I don’t think—and not be suitably impressed, if not utterly flabbergasted by the gleaming brilliance right in front of your ears. Nothing subtle, but the kind of music, performance and production quality that is obviously next level stuff. I felt like I was seeing something that rightly should have been proclaimed an instant classic get lost in a year of tumultuous shuffle.
Not only that, I’m friends with the artist and was involved with drafting the press materials for the release. I’d interviewed him about the music and what inspired and motivated its creation, and in fact, I’ve had a copy of the album since mid-2017 making it my favorite new album of both that year and of 2018. This album was played nonstop in our house for many months. If I woke up in the middle of the night to take a piss, it was inevitably playing in my head. The second my eyes opened in the morning it was still there on a loop between my ears, often in mid song.
I refer here to the phenomenal Rare Birds by Jonathan Wilson. As I was saying above, I thought 2018 was a great year for new music, but there was for me nothing else even close to this album. Luckily for me I really don’t have to try to convince you of the resounding correctness of my opinion as you can simply press play below from the comfort of where you are reading this and have a listen for yourself. But I also know that fewer than 2% of you will bother to listen to the thing you are happily reading about. People would rather read a short description of something than to actually experience it for themselves. That seems odd to contemplate, but we all do it. Me, you, everyone does. So that’s what I’m working with here. Having said that, to those readers curious enough already to think they might just want to give it a listen, don’t wait, pause for a moment, scroll down the page a bit, hit play and come back. I’ll wait. Go on, DO IT.
Jonathan Wilson onstage with Roger Waters. He even sang “Money”!
I guess what might be in order, would be a little background: Jonathan Wilson is an American musician based in Los Angeles and the owner of a very nicely appointed recording studio housed on his hillside Echo Park compound. He is generally considered a “guitar hero.” For the past few years he was an integral part of Roger Waters’ touring band, playing lead guitar and taking the vocal duties over for the Dave Gilmour numbers. You might also know him as the creative partner/producer of Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, on Tillman’s first three FJM albums. He’s collaborated with the likes of Dawes, Chris Robinson, Bob Weir, Erykah Badu, Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Roy Harper, Will Oldham, Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst, Karen Elson, and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone. He’s toured the US with Tame Impala (a fantastic double bill, I can assure you) and in Europe he’s opened for Neil Young and toured with Tom Petty.
In England, where Wilson records for Bella Union, his first album, Gentle Spirit, was (appropriately) given rave reviews and prominent spots in several year end lists (#4 in MOJO, #16 in Uncut, #28 in The Guardian) while Jonathan Wilson himself was named Uncut magazine’s 2011 “New Artist of the Year.” Back home, the album was known to hardcore music heads, and the more clued-in Father John Misty fans, but that was about it. I did, and do, find that a ridiculous state of affairs. I watched a truly classic debut—one that should have been a bestseller and multiple Grammy nominee—fall through the cracks in real time. The astonishing follow-up, Fanfare, which I found to be equally as good as its near perfect predecessor suffered a similar fate. Not for any lack in the music, but from a baffling lack of listeners. (I’ve said it above, but will repeat: I cannot imagine having halfway decent taste in music, being exposed to Wilson’s output and not recognize that you’ve just had gold poured into your ears.)
Rare Birds, Wilson’s third album—I won’t say it’s “his best” because they are all the best—is by far his most complex offering. It is an album which demands to be paid attention to. It’s something that’s meant to be listened to all the way through, from start to finish, stoned, alone, and in the dark. A work of art, in other words, not something to stream in the background on Spotify. His first two albums were compared a lot to CSNY and Pink Floyd—a bit too much if you ask me, even if I am guilty of it myself—but it is true to say that his guitar playing on those records occupies the exact midpoint between the styles of Stephen Stills and David Gilmour. (If you won’t take my word for it, perhaps you’ll take Roger Waters’ opinion seriously?) With Rare Birds no one would make those same comparisons. Here Wilson does a full tilt 1980s Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel thing, using as many as 155 tracks on a given song. Everything is recorded to 2” analog tape through an audio board that was once used at Pye Studios in London (The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, and many others have recorded with it) and taken into ProTools from there before being laid off again to 2” tape for mastering. He’s the type of maniac who will use eight mics for a single drum and told me that he perceived the process of making Rare Birds as if he’d assigned himself a puzzle—a 155 multi-tracked musical Rubik’s Cube—which he then had to solve.
The overall sonic signature of Rare Birds, not heard before on one of Wilson’s albums, is the sound of multiple synthesizers and drum machines that will remind many listeners of Talk Talk’s lush Spirit of Eden (although that album, which was largely improvised, utilized the exact opposite of Wilson’s meticulously planned-by-schematic—included in the vinyl release—working methods.) Inspired by watching Roger Waters working in his studio, layers of sound effects have also been added to the mix. And did I mention that he’s also playing and singing almost everything heard on the album? There are some notable guests—Laraaji, the new age musician and Brian Eno collaborator whose otherworldly vocal contribution to “Loving You” opens the album’s third eye; Father John Misty, the vocal duo Lucius, and Lana Del Rey (instantly recognizable, her minimalist whispered vocal contribution to “Living With Myself” accomplishes so much with so little)—but by and large he’s Todd Rundgrening it here. As far as self-produced solo albums go, this one’s pretty damned solo.
Thematically, Rare Birds is a break-up album—like Blood on the Tracks, and I can assure you that I am not bringing up that masterpiece for no particular reason here. As the album begins, he’s seeing his ex everywhere. She’s driving on the 405 listening to Zappa, or walking across Trafalgar Square whistling a tune with Little Jimmy Dickens. The point is that he’s seeing her everywhere and the album as it progresses is a diary of how he processed what happened to that relationship. During the meet/cute moment she enters her name “just as ‘tight blue jeans’ in my phone, I guess you do this kind of thing…” It’s specifically about one relationship, but anyone going through a break-up and trying to heal afterward could easily project themselves onto the lyrics. It’s songs about love lost, but in the end everyone is going to be fine.
The audiophile-level sound quality of the entire affair is nothing less than remarkable. When I first got it I listened to it, for months, via speakers. Then one night I had just gotten a new pair of headphones and I decided to listen to Rare Birds with them which revealed layer upon layer and subtle details galore that I had never noticed before, despite hundreds of listens. It was astounding to me and exactly the sort of experience that I crave and seek out as a listener. Two months ago I considerably upgraded my stereo system and one of the very first things I thought to play was Rare Birds and once again, I could hear far deeper into the mix. Layer upon layer deeper. This is a much, much higher fidelity than we typically get from any artist. And it is noticeably so.*
Last year, writing about Britpop’s acerbic uncle Luke Haines, I called him the very best British songwriter of his generation—that he is—and remarked that comparing what he did to what most other pop musicians do was like comparing a master mason to someone good at putting up sheds. I feel similarly about Jonathan Wilson and have been on record for some time touting him as, in my opinion, the single best American musician working today, but Wilson can also make a guitar by hand (his axes fetch five figures), as well as build and wire an entire recording studio from the ground up. He isn’t merely a master mason, he’s handcarved all of the very elaborate furniture in the house and done the inspired landscaping. He’s a musician’s musician, with an almost unfathomable talent and breathtaking prowess on so many instruments, but the notion that he’s someone’s sideman—even to greats like Father John Misty and Roger-fucking-Waters—well that’s just not right.
But what would it take to convince you of that? A classic 10/10 gleaming audiophile masterpiece? The man’s put out three of ‘em so far. It’s time for the listening public to catch up to Jonathan Wilson in 2019.
Jonathan Wilson and his band will be touring selected American cities next month. More information and tickets here.
Much more after the jump…