A Separate Peace

When Trip Shakespeare broke up, Matt Wilson marched off to war against his muse. Five years later, this exacting songwriter returns from the front with his first solo album.

All of which might sound fairly mopey--the kind of mournful hand-wringing that a few playground beatings should have put an end to in childhood. But the music is exultant, goofy, giddy. Trip Shakespeare were fervent believers in falsetto and the false ending, and the operatic interlude.

In the world of Trip Shakespeare, history is written by a kind of triumphant loser. (And now, completing the circle, I am the author of their history.)

Indulge me, if you would, the following exercise. As I strained for some 139-plus minutes writing the preceding sentence--it is a grand one, no?--I availed myself of the opportunity to devote some special time to staring in one of the five mirrors that hang in the foyer. And once I was standing there, really in the zone, as they say, of some high-quality procrastination, I began to consider what kind of dolt needs 139 (plus) minutes to write an eight-word sentence. Let me answer that question by telling you what I saw in the mirror.

I saw an outsized nose--call it a de Bergerac--of such bridge width and nostril depth as to resemble the Before shot in a rhinoplasty catalog. I saw pores the size of mosquito netting. I saw eyes so near-set (is it my Semitic heritage?) that the lashes could tangle in a blinking accident. I saw the patches along the coronal suture between the frontal and parietal bones where I used to see hair, but no longer do. I could go on--the floppy ear; the indications of gigantism (i.e., "Abe Lincoln syndrome"); the hard spot behind my right nipple that a wheezing pediatrician once identified as a calcium deposit but which I attribute in my darker moments to a male mammary tumor--I could go on, but this newspaper, though frequently found on bathroom floors, does not come with an air-sickness-bag insert, and so I won't.

Do I feel better for having confessed all this to you? No. And would it not compound the embarrassment to reveal that I've written this same paragraph--give or take a podiatric abnormality--into other articles, other stories? Yes, I'm the kind of guy who takes perverse pleasure in humiliating himself for the amusement of people he's never met (who now have no pressing desire to effect a face-to-face audience).

What I'm trying to communicate is that self-consciousness is a compelling thing. It's a muse, really, but a muse that proves much harder to harness than its distant cousin, narcissism. And I believe Matt Wilson knows more about self-consciousness than I do. In fact, I feel a bit self-conscious comparing my situation to the great wars of attrition he's conducted with this shifty vice and sometime inspiration. When Wilson wins, he taps into the elusive "truth," his real voice; when he loses, he undergoes a complete creative dissolution.

"In the big picture I wanted to get rid of a lot of the old habits," Wilson says of the exhaustive efforts that went into creating Burnt, White and Blue. "One obvious one was the boy-girl romance stuff. That's a mode I used a lot early on in my songwriting to kind of elevate myself. I would do a lot of 'I'm a Bad Guy' songs: 'I'm gonna ramble on you and I'm gonna gamble on you.' Threatening how tough or mean or insensitive I am.

"These were habits that I picked up as a mode of being a songwriter without being vulnerable. It was a way to be rockin' and kick ass. And I had to let that go because it was dishonest. This sounds overly '90s sensitive p.c., but I started to feel very guilty about the positions I was putting the female characters in my songs in. Almost always they would stand for the weak, despicable aspect of myself. I'd sit there and I'd put up this fake female person and then I'd just put 'em down. And what I was actually doing was saying that I hate this part of Matt--and that way I could still be the tough guy. The hard-rockin' guy."

And so while 90 percent of the songwriters in the country were checking their rhyming dictionaries to learn if "girl" is a good match for "world," Wilson was holed up in his practice space excoriating himself for the same lyrical tropes that had made him successful in the first place. A little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing. A lot of self-knowledge is debilitating. And to some extent, it was this same exactitude--the excesses of the editor who does his job too well--that contributed to the demise of Trip Shakespeare.

"It's a real fault of mine," Wilson says, "and I know that Dan and John don't have this. But sometimes it is painful for me. Sometimes I get severely embarrassed by things in the past that I've done, and I just can't let it go.

"The arrangement [in Trip Shakespeare] was that I was writing the words and then Dan and I would write the music with whomever else. And that worked really well. But near the end, after Lulu, I started having those feelings that maybe my whole approach was wrong. And I started to feel guilty about the dishonesty. It was nothing criminal--not criminal dishonesty. I was just obsessed with being a songwriter, and it was so important to me. I would go up on stage and have these glorious nights, strutting around in my rooster style, but I wasn't really proud of what I was putting across. And I started to melt down.

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