Dan Wilson: Free Life

Often armed with just an acoustic guitar, Wilson crafts a lush, laid-back singer-songwriter album that caters to all his potential demographics.

Dan Wilson

Free Life

Label: American
US Release Date: 2007-10-16
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

Keep reading... Show less

On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.

The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.