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.

Feeling betrayed by his record label and the empty rewards of critical praise, Chilton began work on an album called 3rd/Sister Lovers, which he would never entirely finish. The tight craft of the earlier albums has dissipated here; Chilton himself has dissipated. This fact is audible in every druggy, disjointed song, in every weird guitar bark and arrhythmic vocal hiccup. Chilton had tried to earn success on the music industry's corrupt terms with the Box Tops; and he'd poured all his talents into the first two Big Star albums to no avail. 3rd would be a record created entirely on his terms, a masterpiece for the remainder bins. When the head of Ardent, John Fry, suggested that one of the songs might be releasable as a single, Chilton went back to the studio and re-recorded the drum track on a deflated basketball. It is, in sum, a haunting album, the intoxicating distillation of sour grapes.

Alex Chilton is both a hero to musicians for his influential sound and singular will and also something of a cautionary tale: For over a decade now, Chilton has styled himself as a troubadour, touring college towns performing cover versions of "Volare." ("I never thought of myself as being a good songwriter," Chilton told Guitar Player magazine in 1994, continuing to call his early efforts "half-baked and not very well crafted.") Since the '80s, his contempt for the industry has crossed over into a contempt for his audience--which is perhaps the only real offense possible in music. It is said that there are few who have squandered their talent as completely as Chilton: Not for nothing, perhaps, was his last album titled A Man Called Destruction.

Which brings us back to "Deep All the Way Down" and Matt Wilson, who reports that the only fan letter he ever wrote was addressed to Chilton. Not a letter, actually, but a tape, recorded with his freshman-year roommate in a dormitory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I don't think we ever sent it but it was pretty important to us to make it anyway," Wilson says. "We were just telling him about how important he was to us, and what we thought of his music, and that we understood that he was a sad, time-torn man and that we could relate...

"How can you go from that 'Femme Fatale' or 'Back of a Car' to 'Volare'? I think that's one of the things we were asking him on the tape. I think we were begging him to try to get back in touch with what was beautiful. We were trying to tell him about the songs that we loved in order to try to encourage him to be that and find that."

Does every songwriter hate the songs of her past? If a single is lucky enough to hit the charts, then the musician will have to wear it like a hair shirt from that day forth. While he yearns to slip into something more comfortable, the hit song must be replaced before it will go away.

And if the song never reaches its audience--and the size of this imagined audience is probably always about twice the number of actual sales, whatever that is--well, this fate is crueler still. Compare the phenomenon here to James O. Incandenza's theory of orgasms in the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest. Incandenza believes that there are a fixed and finite number of orgasms in the world and that each one he enjoys depletes the global supply, denying some anonymous sheepherder in New Zealand his moment of zeal. The concept is not conducive to Incandenza's sexual productivity; in fact, it nearly paralyzes him, sending him first to drink and then suicide.

So what if you're Matt Wilson and you've written maybe a half dozen of the prettiest songs of the decade, and you've seen them commercially relegated to some Island of Lost Toys?

I am not surprised to learn, then, that Wilson seldom listens to his earlier recordings--albums that have established residency in my car's tape deck for months on end. Maybe it's the Incandenza factor or perhaps just acute self-consciousness. And there is a great and rich sadness to hear of the tracks that Wilson can take pleasure from after a hard-fought détente with some industrious inner demons. (None of the tracks Wilson mentions features his vocals, which is surely no coincidence.)

"On Across the Universe there's a moment on the song 'Late' when I think some real truth comes out, and I'm deeply proud of it," Wilson says. "And the song 'Spirit Comes to Heaven' on Are You Shakespearienced? moves me and makes my spine tingle. I can make a program on the CD player with about half of Lulu so that it sounds great to me.

"The reason I talk about Lulu is because I put it on about a week ago. And I felt a lot of affection and some sweetness about it. But prior to that it had probably been four years or something. And I haven't heard Applehead Man [Trip Shakespeare's first release] in a lot longer than that. There's just no time. It's silly: I don't know where these 'musical slacker rockers' get their time, because I just don't have any."

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