Folk legend Woody Guthrie’s last recording in 1947, but before his death in 1967 he wrote hundreds more songs. The music for these was never written down, so his daughter Nora approached British protest singer Billy Bragg, and persuaded him to write new music and record an album from Guthrie’s lyrics. Bragg enlisted the help of American alt country band Wilco, resulting in Mermaid Avenue, named after the street in Brooklyn where Guthrie spent his post war years.
As much as anything, the nostalgic Americana of the lyrics and the rustic feel recall The Band’s recordings; when Jeff Tweedy’s voice cracks during the mournful ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’, it’s evocative of Richard Manuel. Tweedy and Bragg share the lead vocals between them, and the contrast is effective; Tweedy’s voice is more supple and youthful than Bragg’s deadpan. It’s almost as though they’re playing as Guthrie at two different ages; the young idealist and the old and world weary eccentric. Natalie Merchant takes lead vocals for the low key acoustic ‘Birds and Ships’, and adds harmonies to the lovely ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’, while English folkie Eliza Carthy guests on violin.
What makes Mermaid Avenue memorable is the range of moods explored; Guthrie’s lyrics lend themselves to diverse moods, from nursery rhymes (‘Hoodoo Voodoo’) and whimsy (‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, ‘Ingrid Bergman’), to social commentary (‘Christ for President’, ‘Eisler on the Go’) and poignant balladry (‘Another Man’s Done Gone’). It’s also consistent; some of the less serious efforts like ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, which makes a memorable but jarring start to the album, can be off putting even though they form the soul of the album, but the ballads on this record are just plain gorgeous. ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’, ‘One By One’, ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’, and ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ are all beautiful.
Mermaid Avenue is a beautifully executed project and it rates highly in Wilco’s impressive back-catalogue.