First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Thu October 11, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
While Trip Shakespeare never amassed anything more than a small cult of fans, Semisonic achieved widespread recognition when Closing Time, its love-it-or-leave-it anthem, climbed to the top of Billboard’s modern rock chart. When All about Chemistry, its third outing, failed to build upon the group’s success, Semisonic promptly took an indefinite hiatus to pursue other projects. Front man and principle songwriter Dan Wilson stood to benefit most from the break, but rather than finding it easy to mount a solo career, his rumored debut, which originally was slated for release in 2002, failed to materialize. Still, Wilson didn’t disappear completely. Instead, he found himself settling into a comfortable though less prominent role as a sought-after producer and songwriter. Not only did he help to birth Mike Doughty’s frustratingly generic yet ultimately infectious set Haughty Melodic, but he also co-penned material for the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way, including the Grammy-winning hit Not Ready to Make Nice.
Without a doubt, Wilson’s experiences over the past few years have informed the contents of Free Life, his long overdue solo debut, and to his credit, there’s nothing here that is going to polarize the masses as much as Closing Time did. Although the set hardly could be considered a country or alt-country endeavor, there are as many moments when his music is reminiscent of works by Ryan Adams (Sugar), The Jayhawks (All Kinds), and Counting Crows (Against History) as there are times when he drew upon his typical touchstone: The Beatles. Over the course of the outing, Wilson props up his insistent melodies with sweeping flourishes of strings (Honey Please); other songs are enveloped in the quaint, quiet intimacy of Paul McCartney’s acoustic explorations. His vocals, too, have improved immensely, and the anguished cries that he emits on songs like Breathless and Honey Please fall somewhere among the angst-filled wails of Jeff Buckley, Travis’ Fran Healy, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Although Free Life isn’t a concept album, per se, Wilson is smart enough to have bound his compositions together through common themes that carry the listener from the starting point to the finish line. All of his songs revolve around affairs of the heart, though his tales also are couched as cautionary reflections upon the current human condition. The title track as well as the collection’s concluding cut Hand on My Heart provide the greater context. On the former song, Wilson takes the stance that life is what one makes of it. The latter tune emphasizes the need not only to embrace one’s emotions but also to resist the urge to stake out a safe place to hide them away. In the end, one wishes that Wilson would heed his own advice. While his conservative approach has allowed him to extend his string of solidly delivered albums, it simultaneously has kept him from making a truly great one.
Of Further Interest...
Free Life is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box