Fair or not, any discussion about Jay Bennett must include mention of his exit from indie rock kingpins Wilco, so we might as well get it out of the way early on. After all, Bennett’s dismissal from the band and dissolution of friendship with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy informs large chunks of his break-up-intensive new album, The Magnificent Defeat. And if a high-profile career fall-out weren’t enough to fuel Bennett’s creative fires, he also recently got divorced. It’s not too much to say that it’s kinda been raining shit on Jay Bennett for a while. But rather than wallow in misery, Bennett decamped to his studio for a few years to get his head together and emerged with 70 (!) new songs that got whittled down to the 13 that appear on The Magnificent Defeat.
Here’s the funny thing about the album: the easiest way to describe is an amalgamation of the sounds and themes of the first two Wilco records: Bennett’s definitely his own man, but part of his heart will always be in Wilco.
Wilco’s first record, 1995’s A.M. was, to informed fans who knew about Tweedy’s falling out with his old Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar, a rootsy set of break up tunes (“Box Full of Letters”, “I Must Be High”) that coulda been about a girl, but was more likely an open letter from Tweedy to Farrar. Bennett plays the same card throughout Defeat: On the stomping “Replace You”, he avers “I tolerated every little bit of your shit”; he apologizes on “Out All Night” when he sings “It was the best that I can do” and gets nostalgic on the closing “Gold” when he’s “looking through this album full of photographs (his very own “Box Full of Letters”!) and is “reminded of the times that we were good as gold”. It’s an album fairly soaked in acrimony, regret and loss, though it’s hardly doom and gloom. Inside references to “drug handshake”, riffing on the post-Bennett Wilco tune, “Handshake Drugs”, on “Overexcusers” reveal a twinkle alive in Bennett’s eye.
Bennett doesn’t exorcise his demons quietly, as one might suppose, with acoustic ballads and navelgazing; nah, these songs rock pretty hard, in an early Wilco/Alejandro Escovedo kind of way. And Bennett, a studio obsessive if ever there was one, generally knows how to make a song sound the way it’s supposed to sound, though sometimes he gets carried away (and here’s where the second Wilco record, Being There with its blooming of sonic adventurism, leaves its imprint on The Magnificent Defeat).
The unpretentious roots rockers (“Replace You”, “Out All Night”) are uniformly excellent, but he Jackson Pollocks electronic squelches all over “Thank You”, lets “Phone Book” get too cacophonous and seems to have left “Butterfly” half-finished. Then, there’s the distracting/noisy opener “Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster”, all tetchy with a disco beat and modulated voice, which Bennett brags took him two weeks to mix. It may have made for good therapy, but it’s a disorienting list, and with it in the album’s leadoff slot, Bennett risks losing listeners.
Those brave enough to wade through “Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster” (or those smart enough to just hit “skip” on the CD player) will find a pretty darn good 21 century roots rock album that listeners will enjoy hearing almost as much as Bennett enjoyed making it. Would that we all had our own recording studios; therapists would be out of business.
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