Re-Covered (Deluxe Hardcover)

Dan Wilson

Independent release, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Take a seat by the fire, children, and listen to my tale. Once long ago, in the Vinyl Age (the first one), the presentation of music was as important to many artists as the music itself. New records were issued encased in 12” x 12” sleeves decorated with detailed, imaginative artwork, and might feature multi-panel gatefolds and lyric booklets and in-depth liner notes that told not just who played every instrument on every track but, if you were lucky, a little bit about how each song came to be: its origin story, in a sense.

These objects—treasured objects that were often works of art unto themselves—were called albums.

I’m admittedly going on a bit here because I was easily convinced to purchase the “deluxe hardcover” $35 version of Semisonic frontman / ace songwriter Dan Wilson’s new solo album Re-Covered, and you should be, too. It’s simply one of the finest album presentations / content vessels in the history of such things, a beautifully handcrafted work of art that amplifies my enjoyment of the music it contains in every respect.

Okay—more on the packaging and presentation later, but let’s talk about the music for a bit, shall we?

Many of Semisonic’s late-’90s alt-rock peers can be found today slogging away on the nostalgia circuit, playing theaters or small arenas on double and triple bills. Certainly, Wilson and bandmates John Munson and Jacob Slichter could have ridden the wave created by the temporarily ubiquitous 1997 hit “Closing Time” into decades of banging out the same dozen or so Semisonic tunes for the band’s loyal core audience. Instead, frontman Wilson opted to take what he’d learned in Semisonic and previous band Trip Shakespeare and focus his energies almost exclusively on the craft of songwriting. This album collects some of the fruits of those years of labor and refinement of his skills—a dozen songs co-written with notable others, best known in the versions sung by those others, here reclaimed and “Re-Covered” by Wilson himself.

The number and variety and star power of artists who’ve enlisted Wilson as a songwriting partner over the past 15 years is fairly staggering; try Dierks Bentley, John Legend, Adele, Taylor Swift, Leann Rimes, and Josh Groban, for a start. Did you know the Dixie Chicks’ defiant 2006 hit “Not Ready To Make Nice” was co-written by Wilson—and that he co-wrote five other songs on the album of the same name? You do now.

Given that backstory, this album inevitably feels like a distant relative of an album by one of Wilson’s other notable songwriting collaborators: Carole King. King co-wrote a series of hits for other artists early in her career before re-recording several of them herself as a solo artist for the album Tapestry, one of the best-selling LPs of all time. Decades later, she collaborated with Wilson on “One True Love” for Semisonic’s 2001 album All About Chemistry, an experience recounted in the liner notes here, and one that seems to have spurred Wilson’s interest in and evident gift for collaborative songwriting.

Track number one “All Will Be Well” starts with the lines “The new day dawns / And I am practicing my purpose again,” so of course it has to open an album that’s essentially about Wilson practicing his artistic purpose as a songwriter. Co-written with Gabe Dixon, it’s a steady-flowing folk-rock tune with a ruminating lyric that unfolds almost like a meditation as guest Sean Watkins and producer Mike Viola keep it pulsing along on acoustic and electric guitars.

The liner notes reveal the backstory to “Home,” co-written with Dierks Bentley and his producer Brett Beavers, a #1 country hit that also represented Wilson’s return to Nashville after a four-year exile following his collaboration with the industry-blackballed Dixie Chicks. It’s what Bentley himself describes as an “inclusive patriotic song,” full of lines like “’Cause same, we’re not the same / But that’s what makes us strong.” I’ve never heard the Bentley version, but Wilson’s take powers along like the natural anthem it is, an early high point of this album.

“You And I” is everything you might expect of a John Legend co-write: silky, sweet, romantic and a nice opportunity for Wilson to deploy his delicate falsetto on the choruses. Moving right along, it should surprise no one that the difference between Wilson’s voice and that of his collaborator’s is perhaps most evident on “Someone Like You,” the Adele tear-jerker that anyone with a functioning radio heard in its circa-2011 day. The more familiar version is powered by Adele’s jet-engine pipes; here Wilson’s more delicate vocal is buoyed by support from the Kronos Quartet, playing a superb string arrangement created by Wilson’s Semisonic bandmate Jacob Slichter. Apparent though the difference is, the vulnerability of Wilson’s voice as he strains a bit to hit the big notes actually adds poignance to this version of the song.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Lest this review turn into a novella, let’s pull a speed-round: “Never Meant to Love You” (written with Cory Chisel) offers a snappy, steady-flowing narrative full of clever lines; “Treacherous” (written with Taylor Swift) is a dreamy tune about temptation (“This slope is treacherous / And I—I—I like it”); “Landing” (written with brother and Trip Shakespeare bandmate Matt Wilson) is a punchy, expansive airborne road song; the lovely shoulder-to-lean-on number “Your Misfortune” (written with Mike Doughty) again features a sort of silky tension to it; “Borrowed” (written with Leann Rimes and Darrell Brown) glides on a hypnotically flowing acoustic guitar groove that accentuates the isolation of being a cheater’s other partner; and “If I Walk Away” (written with Josh Groban) is a billowing, terrific ballad about asking your partner to save you from yourself (“If I walk away / Would you please follow me”).

That leaves three more standout tracks (not that any of the above aren’t excellent).

As you might expect, it’s strange to hear the deeply autobiographical “Not Ready To Make Nice” sung by anyone other than Natalie Maines, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great song. As told in the liner notes, it was a genuine collaboration, a tune that Wilson developed several important pieces of, and that he, Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire then molded into the finished song. Wilson does a great job here of locating the melancholy residing alongside the evident anger in the lyric; yes, it’s defiant, but there’s also a sense of sad disbelief that things have come to this, with plaintive, echoey acoustic guitar replacing the big swells of strings in the original.

Chris Stapleton co-write “When The Stars Come Out” is a pure and lovely acoustic country-folk number drenched in sunny chords, with pretty harmony vocals from Viola. The fascinating part is how innocent and sincere it sounds, given that 98 percent of songs about Hollywood and its stars are dark and cynical.

The album closes, naturally, with “Closing Time,” a bonus track in the sense that it’s the only song here that Wilson wrote by himself. In re-recording Semisonic’s biggest hit, he recasts the song in the musical framework he’s typically employed since that band went dormant, stripping it down to its core of piano and voice. This is revelatory in the sense that the power and majesty and anthemic qualities of the song are intact; when he hits the big piano notes coming into the chorus, it has the same emotional impact as the big guitars did on the original, it’s just using different shades of color to color in the lines of the song.

The fresh arrangement also gives you an opportunity to hear the lyrics again as if for the first time. The double-meaning of the lyric—a bar at closing time, a womb about to send its occupant out into the world—is well known by now, but even a longtime fan like me caught fresh angles on the song in this more deliberate, even wistful arrangement. “Time for you to go out to the places you will be from,” a line that always felt more existential than literal to me, now feels quite literally about Wilson’s son about to be born and emerge into those places—the family, the hospital, the city—where he will be from.

Enhancing my enjoyment of the above fine work every step of the way was the packaging of the “deluxe” version, housed inside a tastefully hardbound book. Full lyrics and album credits, yes, these are nice, but the gold here is a string of essays in which Wilson narrates his personal journey as a songwriter, telling stories from his past and explaining various songwriting terms and traditions while sharing the inside story behind the creation of every one of these tracks. Moreover, Wilson, a talented calligrapher and artist, sketches titles and illustrations for every song and page, as well as a center-spread two-page annotated “map” of the trail he followed from song to song. The book framework is perfect in the sense that all of this material—credits, stories, lyrics, and illustrations—works together to form a narrative that’s warm, insightful, revealing and witty, like a long conversation by the fire with an old friend who you’ve just met. I loved it.

Like Tapestry before it, one of the beauties of Re-Covered is that you get a very different take on a familiar song than what you’re used to hearing, but by someone who understands every tiny nuance of the song, melody and lyric intimately, because he helped create it. It’s early yet to know if this album is one I’ll return to again and again—as good as these songs are, I still love Wilson’s voice best in the rock-ier Semisonic context—but there’s no doubt whatsoever that he has spent his time well since embarking on the songwriter’s path. These are songs for the ages, and Re-Covered offers a master class in songwriting presented by a gifted craftsman and raconteur.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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