Living for any length of time in a foreign country — particularly one where you don’t speak the language — is a curiously detaching experience. You watch people you don’t know, events you’re not connected with, like a film without a soundtrack, almost a series of abstract images. Moreover, you are thrown back on your own life and memories in a way that simply can’t happen in your busy hometown, where people are always ready to jolt you into the present.
Steve Wynn lived in Slovenia for several months while he was recording Crossing Dragon Bridge, without his long-time band the Miracle 3, in a place where he had few ties and relationships. There’s a long, interesting description of his daily life in Ljubljana on his website, which, aside from a productive interaction with producer Chris Eckman, seems to have been a kind of time out of time for Wynn.
The two “Slovenian Rhapsody” tracks that bookend this album refer most directly to his experience. Both sound distinctly Midde European, swaying in a minor key gypsy waltz, the first melancholy with whistling, the second embellished with a plaintive clarinet, and both bracketed by the mutter of radio broadcasts in a foreign language. However, only the closing track makes the mood explicit with words. Surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds, Wynn finds himself “drowning in my own rhapsody”.
Most of the album, then, has a subdued, backwards-looking tone, with Wynn trading the garage rock of his last three albums for a palette of strings, acoustic guitar, choral vocals, and drums. Some of the songs — “Punch Holes in the Sky” — have the aching spareness of Leonard Cohen. Others — “Manhattan Faultline” and “Believe in Yourself” — are full almost to the bursting point (“Believe in Yourself” is probably a bit overcrowded) with orchestral flourishes.
Even the album’s rowdiest, country rocker “Annie and Me”, has an introspective interval, where Wynn breaks from his raucous memories of a teenage love to consider the impermanence of memory. At 16, in the song, he and his friend Annie are cavorting naked at the Hollywood Bowl. At first, the music is wrecklessly fast and joyful, a little bit of country in the guitar and handclapped rhythms. By two and a half minutes in, though, Wynn is clearly his current age again, “Trying not to let go / Of the feeling / But something always gets in the way”.
Not that this album is a downer at all. Even the slow songs have a certain weathered optimism, and the rockers are downright fun, the kind of sly, shivery psychedelic grooves that Wynn has been perfecting for decades. “Love Me Anyway”, with its trippy washes of organ and blues-rocking guitar, has the wet-highway-at-night sheen of a good paisley pop tune. (It sounds a lot like True West, a mid-1980s psych pop band produced by Wynn.) “Wait Until You Get to Know Me” slips a bit of East European worldliness into its alt.country swagger, a devilishly canted grin implied in lyrics like, “I’m the finger of scotch in a dry Manhattan”.
Fans of Wynn’s hard-rocking Miracle 3 material may warm up to these upbeat songs first, but repeated listens brings out the rewards of the slower songs, too. This is late night music, for evenings when even familiar surroundings seem foreign and memories take on greater weight and meaning than the day-to-day. You could drown in your own rhapsody with Crossing Dragon Bridge as background… or learn to swim in it as gracefully as Wynn.