Of all the musical collaborations that come to mind, none is as both as lovely and as rambunctious as Mermaid Avenue, the album Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded of music they set to the lyrics of the greatest folkie of them all, Woody Guthrie. It never fails to move me, or do a silly dance as Jeff Tweedy sings in the great “Hoodoo Voodoo.” Kindred spirits, Bragg and Wilco achieve an amazing feat; they provide ingenious musical settings for songs that Guthrie, who’d written the lyrics, was too sick to write music for due to the physical impairments of Huntington’s Disease. It’s truly a masterpiece this one, and never fails to remind me of E.M. Cioran’s comment that “What is not heartrending is superfluous, at least in music.”
It was Nora Guthrie, Woody’s father, who offered the lyrics to radical folk singer Billy Bragg, who went to Wilco about recording an album. The sessions ended up being stormy; Wilco’s Jay Bennett felt that Bragg’s musical settings were too ornate, and there was a falling out. Bennett called Bragg about re-recording some of Bragg’s recordings, to which the Englishman replied, “”You make your record, and I’ll make mine, fucker.” But things were finally settled, and I’m of the opinion that Bennett overreacted; the songs sound all of a piece, like a latter-day Basement Tapes.
From the wild opener, “Walt Whitman’s Niece,” a raucous and harmonica-fueled tune featuring group vocals and a spoken section by Bragg about a run-in with a woman who claimed to be Walt Whitman’s niece to the sublimely beautiful “California Stars,” the album will make you dizzy with joy from the start. “California Stars” boasts an ethereal melody that will make you swoon, some lovely piano and guitar, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on vocals. He wants to make lay his head on a bed of California stars, and violinist Eliza Carthy helps provide the beautiful sound that makes the song altogether irresistible. That and Jay Bennett’s piano, and lots of guitars. One of my favorite songs of all time, this one.