There is something deeply noble and brave about anybody who is prepared to trawl through the very core of his experience and lay bare the facts of that experience, that life, in full view of the world in the form of a song. The risk is great and, more often than not, the reward minimal. And whereas the greats of the genre—the Dylans, the Cohens, the Mitchells—have enhanced our world immensely by their craft and been rewarded well for it, there exists an entire legion of singer-songwriters who continue to shape their lives into song, yet who labor in relative obscurity, known and acknowledged only by their small following of fans.
David Wilcox is one such artist. This is his eighth release since he debuted in 1987 with The Nightshift Watchman. Many of these previous works were critically well-received, but he is not exactly an MTV regular just yet. And it is doubtful that he ever will be. What we hear on this album is an honesty, a genuineness, a fearlessness in exploring those forgotten highways of memory and folly, that demands respect, but is lacking the type of edge that might really grab the imagination of the listener.
This 12-song collection is concerned with mapping the rugged, often painful, landscape of memory and loss. The importance of accepting and acknowledging the past as the begetter of our present selves is a constant theme throughout. The song “Step into Your Skin” urges us accept everything that has formed us. “When You’re Ready” offers the prospect of a machine capable of erasing all the painful memories of the past but, in the last verse, it turns out to be nothing more than a kind of psychological placebo, doing nothing but allowing its user the choice of leaving the past behind. On the final track, “Guitar Shopping,” Wilcox explains that while he needed an old, weathered guitar when he was starting out because it was so full of stories and music; now he no longer feels that need to acquire old instruments because the years have given him his own stories and have filled him with music.
Marriage, and all its successes and failures, is another constant theme here. “Start with the Ending” and “In the Broken Places” are both tributes to the joys and agonies of marriage and lessons in the importance of honesty and trust, even when the mistakes of the past have caused that trust to be eroded.
The weaknesses here are always apparent, however. Some of the tracks, like “What You Whispered” and “Rule Number One” take us nowhere of interest and feel like little more than place fillers. Wilcox’s music, whilst pleasant in a James Taylorish sort of way, lacks the kind of bite that might really grab the listener’s attention.
This is the work of a mature artist. The themes and emotions that feature are adult ones and, as in real life, there is a certain ambiguity in these songs. Musically and emotionally low-key, there is refreshingly little here that is forced or overblown. Wilcox may never hit the big time, but it is good to know that artists like him exist, creating music that dwells in the quiet places of our lives.
// Notes from the Road
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