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.

Matt Wilson is 35 years old; Dan is 37. They have played together in a handful of bands for nearly 20 years--the Seal Beaters, the Love Monsters, Animal Dance, Trip Shakespeare--and they each play on the other's latest album. And I assume that they have made each other better musicians more times than they can count and also driven each other to the limits of their tolerance--and then past that.

Matt Wilson called a couple of days after our first interview to add a few comments about the end of Trip Shakespeare and the beginning of Semisonic. He said that the situation was "achingly complex" and that while he'd initially been envious--and had made no attempt to dissemble that envy--he'd also felt an enormous pride upon hearing Semisonic's songs on the radio.

A lot of things happen between brothers and I am sure that the Wilsons are no exception. Ultimately, with the moral guidance of Christine Wolff, I like to imagine the two as teenagers in their basement in St. Louis Park, Dan on guitar, Matt on drums. They are pale and slight--paler and slighter than they are now--and they're making a lot of noise. They've got two or three tape recorders jerry-rigged into a makeshift 4-track, and they're laying down tracks that Matt compares to a primitive Chick Corea.

"It was a pretty big deal to rig things together and mic things up," Matt remembers. "It was incredibly exciting and revelatory. This just obliterated every other interest. I couldn't write songs, really. I just played drums. But the fact that Dan could write songs and come up with chords and melodies--it was like he had the key to some magic thing."

Burnt, White and Blue, to the best of my reckoning, is an album about the risks of losing one's direction, and I don't believe that Matt Wilson would bristle to hear it called abstractly autobiographical. (At the same time, the album's very existence is a tribute to its creator having successfully coped with the trials it describes.) Though Wilson has shed his more ornamental arrangements--there is nothing goofy about the album--the songs are tuneful and handsomely crafted. Put plainly, the thing sounds damn good.

True to his word, Wilson has pared the boy-girl stuff down to a single song. So too, he has for the most part shed narrative lyrics for elliptical and imagistic ones, which I am not convinced is an improvement. Isolated lines pop out of certain songs: "Lost in my hate while I wait for the up to taste imitation," in the first track, "Sun Is Coming." Or from the second song, "Searchers": "Feels like motion sensing lights/Reveal my case/Review my clothes/My fucked-up face/Now I think I want to change my place." Now I don't know exactly what those lines mean, but I don't believe they're slogans for the new poster line at Successories. One detail that might help establish the emotional tenor of the album is the musician credit listed for "abyss noises."

Wilson's voice has dropped and thickened a little over the past few years; he sounds more adult now. And this effect makes Wilson's seeming withdrawal into his own painful world more disconcerting to listen to at the same time as it probably marks this work as a genuine hunk of art--an adolescent kind of self-involvement being one of the surest hallmarks of a real artist.

The standout on the album is the song "Deep All the Way Down," a musician's tale of creative bankruptcy. The strumming is lazy, relaxed; the flat, pretty melody has all the urgency of an Eagles tune. But the lyrics describe a state of near-desperation: "Paralyzed on the music-hall floor/And I smile at the sages at the box-office door/I should want to deliver my sound/But I fear there is nothing in my deep all the way down."

In the second verse, the singer awakens to the sight of the devil penning songs in his notebook. Embodied here are the temptations of insincerity, compromise, cowardice; and the only other option available is to sink deeper into the void of self-doubt, the "nothing" in his "true to the life, deep in the dark core."

It's a hard, affecting song, and a great one, too. But the chorus may stand out most of all. Here, Wilson slips into his falsetto, and this time it sounds sharp and immediate. "Half of this song I stole from a stranger," he sings. "Half of this song I made in my head."

I think I know whom he stole it from: This power-pop melody is a dead ringer for the work of Alex Chilton and Big Star.

Alex Chilton is best remembered as the 16-year-old singer of the Box Tops hit "The Letter"--though I just realized that I'm speaking about Chilton as if he's dead, which technically he is not. Manipulated by the songwriter and producer Dan Penn (who also wrote such soul classics as "Do Right Woman" and "I'm Your Puppet"), Chilton rebelled after a few years against his so-called "band" of studio pros.

After an abortive solo project, Chilton joined up with a group of young Anglophiles in Ardent studios in Memphis. Comprising Chris Bell on vocals and guitar, Jody Stephens on drums, and Andy Hummel on bass, the band called itself Big Star. It was to prove an ironic title, a bitter joke at Chilton's expense. As would the unfortunate title of their first release, #1 Record. For though the album contained some of the most gorgeous rock songs of the era--bright, propulsive, irresistible tunes--this 1973 release would never reach #1--or #100. Chris Bell left the band before the second album, Radio City; when he died in a car crash a few years later, his obituary in the local Memphis paper identified him only as the son of a prominent restaurateur.

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