Steve Wynn will never be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He’s too good, his career too varied, and he has influenced all the wrong people to earn enshrinement in that monument to corporate-approved rebellion. All of this is to compliment his ongoing and stubborn conviction to follow his muse and artistic vision. Wynn remains a restless spirit, not afraid to take chances and carefree as to whether his efforts inspire critical praise or scorn. He’s received enough of either over the years to know that neither really matters. Even when he gives the people what they want, like, say, a new Dream Syndicate record near 30 years on from the last one, he does so on his terms. Everyone is welcome to follow along, just don’t tell him what it’s supposed to sound like. That’s his business.
The new Dream Syndicate record, How Did I Find Myself Here?, doesn’t sound like any of the old Dream Syndicate records, which is something that can be said, actually, of each of the previous Dream Syndicate records. Does 1988’s Ghost Stories really sound like the same band (or half that original band) that had made Days of Wine & Roses in 1982? Nope. Should both be called “Dream Syndicate records”? Absolutely. The current Dream Syndicate lineup features three of the four members who recorded that last studio album: Wynn, drummer Dennis Duck, and bassist Mark Walton. As he has since the Dream Syndicate’s 2012 reformation as a touring unit, Jason Victor (Wynn’s longtime partner in Miracle 3) has replaced Paul Cutler on guitar. With three years of touring under their belts, including two 2014 Atlanta performances featuring both Days of Wine & Roses and The Medicine Show played in sequence, this group was tight and possibly more cohesive when entering the studio than any unit previously recording under the name.
How Did I Find Myself Here? sure sounds like it: confident and playful, amped up and in sync. Each of the album’s eight songs is unique unto itself, yet all flow together into a cohesive set. The album sounds a bit like the ’90s bands that Dream Syndicate influenced, a joyful immersion into collective melodic noise. Few units can soar, grind, and spasm in the ways Dream Syndicate has always been able to conjure at will. “Filter Me Through You” opens the album with an explosion of full-on aggression, all players on hand in a classic song of heartbreak and perseverance. Wynn has always been a great pop songwriter, and this is one of his strongest. So, too, is “Glide”, with its soaring chorus of “I just glide / I may never get higher / I don’t have to come down.” The song, possibly a comment on expectations, both those he set for himself and those imposed by others, is as uplifting as the washes of Wynn and Victor’s paired guitar drones.
The darker side of the Dream Syndicate can be heard in “80 West”, which drops listeners onto Pennsylvania’s long slog of a highway, one of those quintessentially American travel zones that pass between places but through nothing and where when sudden disruption occurs, be it crime or accident, whatever happens there happens in a vacuum that sucks all other travelers in, not to the event itself, but to a void that is the emptiness of waiting for the journey to resume and for life to return to normal. Of course, a grinding song such as this implies that nothing will ever be the same again. Meanwhile, “Outta My Head” is a psychedelic buzzsaw of a song conveying the fact that finding contentment doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is okay all of the time, and there’s always a need to blow off steam, with or without returning to old, self-destructive habits. And Kendra Smith makes a welcome return to the Dream Syndicate fold, sharing songwriting credits and singing lead on “Kendra’s Dream”, a welcome, trippy closer that evokes memories of her fine, underappreciated 1992 release Five Ways of Disappearing.
Titling the album How Did I Find Myself Here?, one suspects, is a mix of whimsy and sincerity on Wynn’s part. It is kind of amazing that he has been able to forge the long career that he has within a music industry that has ranged from fawning to indifferent regarding his work and which has changed so dramatically since his first recordings. Yet, here he stands, healthy, well-adjusted, and maybe just enjoying his life and career more now than during its promising commercial heyday.
Let the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trade in nostalgia. Steve Wynn is committed to always moving forward, even when he chooses to look back. We are all the beneficiaries.