[27 May 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
A couple of years ago, David Wilcox, a longtime fixture on the US folk scene, sold his house, bought a vintage Airstream trailer, and took to the road with his wife and son. He must have seen some pretty heavy stuff, because he has collected here, on his fourteenth record, a mostly somber bunch of material. Tackling the toughest issues—religious fundamentalism, the paradox of faith, and the worst president in the history of the union—Wilcox explores an America in turmoil, at war with itself, and which, it seems, is losing its very soul.
This is a record about grand ideas but, cleverly, it is recorded in the sparest possible way, with Wilcox alone at the mic, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. Wilcox’s skills on his instrument are well known—he is a regular fixture in acoustic guitar magazines, detailing his alternate tunings and odd fingerpicking style (which, to my ears, are reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, respectively). And, among folkies, Wilcox’s smooth baritone is well-loved, and often imitated. The problem, however, is in the combination between his lovely voice, his slick guitar, and his frequently cheeseball lyrics.
On his best tunes (the lovely and poignant “She’s Just Dancing”, “East Asheville Hardware”, and “Rusty Old American Dream”), Wilcox has always sounded as though he was a good friend delivering a bit of liberal wisdom. However, at his worst (I am here referring to almost the entire 1999 LP Underneath), he has sounded like a parody of the entire genre of white, urban, folk music. Wilcox’s listeners, then (or, okay, me), are in a constant struggle to hear him more as an affable country neighbour than a cheesy metropolitan hippie. (Although, let’s face it, if you don’t kind of like the occasional corny come-on-people-now-smile-on-your-brother kind of thing, Wilcox at his heaviest will still strike you with the impact of a falling raven feather.)
On Airstream, alone at the microphone, Wilcox demonstrates everything that has made him both celebrated and influential as a folkie, and the butt of jokes by my friends who see him as the “Kenny G of acoustic music”. On the one hand, Airstream boasts a few tunes as well-crafted, as hard-hitting, and as memorable as any of his greatest. From the gloomy examinations of faith on “Four Brothers” and “To Love”, to the powerful political pulse-takings of “Falling For It” and “Reaper Sweepstakes”, Wilcox here brings some light to the dark corners of our present murk. But, such standout tracks are balanced by some awkward, sentimental stuff, suffering from slow tempos and lazy, schmaltzy, too-familiar lyrics. (“Love made a picture right here in my heart / I still see all those years shining through somehow / I see forever now”, is one easy listening refrain.)
Still, for all its ups and downs, this is Wilcox’s best studio record since the mid-‘90s. The sparseness of the recordings, the immediacy of the performances, and the presence of enough darkness, irony, and even, yes, cynicism, pushes the record to heights that never even felt attainable on his last few releases. While much of the folk world continues to dress their tunes in overproduction and cheese when a bit of rawness would do just fine, Wilcox has made the brave leap back to the bare. For this alone he should be praised. And, the record is pretty good, too.