When history looks back on Semisonic, the only thing that will be remembered will be “Closing Time”, one of the less-annoying alt-pop monoliths of the late 90s. It’s a sad thing, too, as Semisonic were a flat-out phenomenal pop band. Songs like “Singing in My Sleep”, “Secret Smile”, “F.N.T.”, “Delicious” and “Chemistry” showcased a band with finely tuned pop sensibilities, capable of creating three-minute bursts of joy without batting an eye. Of course, bands don’t live on one hit alone. Following the pre-millennial demise of that group, frontman Dan Wilson soon set up camp under the wing of Rick Rubin, gradually crafting his solo album while lending his songwriting abilities to others. One of these “others” was the Dixie Chicks, and “Not Ready to Make Nice” — a song they co-wrote with Wilson — wound up garnering multiple wins at the 2007 Grammy Awards, and suddenly it appeared that Wilson wouldn’t have to live on “Closing Time” residual paychecks much longer.
Free Life comes fresh off of some stellar production stints (see: Mike Doughty and Rachael Yamagata), yet sounds remarkably sedated. Often armed with just an acoustic guitar, Wilson crafts a lush, laid-back singer-songwriter album that caters to all his potential demographics. The gorgeous title track would not have existed were it not for his work with the Dixie Chicks, but Wilson keeps everything universal by never veering into country-pop full-on, usually just lacing slide-guitars within conventional pop structures. “Breathless”, meanwhile, is total Top 40 pop-rock, and Wilson proves that few people can do it better.
Yet, the biggest downfall of Free Life is simply how it feels like Wilson is trying to prove that he’s a singer-songwriter, dressing up his lyrics with more metaphors than meaning (“Baby Doll”, “Come Home Angel”, and “Sugar” are all lined up together in the sequencing and each features him describing a girl using the term of endearment that’s featured in the song title; needless to say, it’s a ploy that gets old fast). He can still pen a zinger of a line (“You leave me breathless when you close the door / It feels like you took the air out of the room with you“), but by the end of the hour-long album, it feels like he’s covered the same emotional territory twice-over. Even with that in mind, however, songs like “Against History” are as effortless as they are flat-out amazing. With a Grammy to his name and the respect of his peers, Wilson just may stop worrying about trying to impress the rest of us and simply get back to doing what he does best: writing great pop songs.