"Mermaid Avenue" is so named because it was the street in Coney Island that uber-folkie Woody Guthrie lived on when he wrote the lyrics for most of these songs. The music, unfortunately, was never recorded or even transcribed to sheets of music, and died with Guthrie in 1967.
This unusual collaboration between British songwriter Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco came about after Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and curator of the Woody Guthrie Archive, saw Bragg do a cover of a Guthrie song at a benefit concert and was so impressed that she approached him about writing new music for some of her father's unscored lyrics. After leafing through over a thousand lyrics with his backing band/co-writers, Bragg and Wilco headed to the studio to breathe new life into Guthrie's forgotten words.
It is strangely appropriate that these artists would be the ones to create new music for Guthrie's lyrics. Bragg, famous for both his Socialist political views and his me-and-my-guitar-against-the-world songwriting, embodies the political side of Guthrie, a leftist activist who fought for the working man (although it must be said that he's written quite a few great love songs as well). Wilco (and more specifically, Jeff Tweedy, their primary songwriter), on the other hand, have spent their careers creating a new alt-country sound that draws heavily from the folk traditions that gave birth to Guthrie half a century ago.
The album opens with "Walt Whitman's Niece", a rollicking joy ride that sets the celebratory tone carried through much of the rest of the record. Lines like
A girl took down a book of poems,
not to say which book of poems,
And as she read, I laid my head,
and I can't tell which head
Down in her lap, and I can mention which lap
demonstrate both Guthrie's humor and his passion for life, and they are sung with gusto by Bragg and Wilco. The album generally alternates songs from one singer/songwriter to the next; Bragg and Tweedy trade vocal chores from one song to the next, with Wilco backing them both up. Despite the differences in their voices (Bragg's deep, clear, Brit-twinged voice contrasting sharply with Tweedy's raspy, nasal droneI mean that in a good way), this actually works pretty well. Their songwriting styles differ as well, but their reverence for and appreciation of Guthrie's work, in addition to the solid musical foundation provided by Wilco's playing, produces songs that play off of each other to create a remarkable masterworka true tribute to Guthrie's musical legacy.
Each artist tends to choose lyrics that fit their strengths, with Bragg sticking mostly to political themes and Wilco to more whimsical material. Bragg's versions of songs like "Eisler on the Go", about a one of Guthrie's songwriter contemporaries who was compelled to appear before Congress during McCarthy's communist witch hunt, and "I Guess I Planted", an anthem to unions and the working man, allow Bragg to carry on both Guthrie's political and musical ideals.
But just as in his own albums, Bragg's not afraid to sing about matters of the heart either. "Ingrid Bergman", a daydream about filming a movie in Italy with the classic beauty, and "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key", the story of a young man who wins the girls despite his looks thanks to his perfect voice (which is almost certainly autobiographical), give us a glimpse into Guthrie's (and Bragg's) romantic sides. "She Came Along to Me" merges the political and the personal, celebrating both an individual woman and women as a group, while envisioning some distant utopia of equality.
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy focuses on lyrics that underscore Guthrie's more wistful and occasionally whimsical sentiments. "California Stars" is a beautiful meditation on the night sky ("I'd like to rest my heavy head tonight/On a bed of California stars"); "One by One" and "At My Window Sad and Lonely" are melancholy wishes for a love lost and a love that never was. "Hoodoo Voodoo", a nonsense stream of babble written for Guthrie's daughter, and "Christ for President" a country romp heavy on the twang and irony, show Guthrie's carefree, silly side. "Hesitating Beauty", about a man who can't wait for marriage to consummate his love for his future bride, is another gem celebrating lust and love ("Why do you my dear delay,/what makes you laugh and turn away?/You're a hesitating beauty, Nora Lee").
This album is a unique moment in the history of 20th century music, where two very different contemporary artists are inspired by a man long dead to create a work that somehow manages to pay tribute with imitating, to celebrate without irony an artist whose work has inspired countless musicians who have come after. It is also a rare moment in the careers of Billy Bragg and Wilco, who manage to integrate their own original styles to create a magical collaboration that somehow transcends their previous work without discrediting it.
These songs represent but a fraction of the songs recorded during these sessions, which themselves were but a small fraction of the lyrics that Guthrie left behind. Fortunately, a follow-up effort is already being planned. If it's got half as much to offer as its predecessor, it will be well worth the wait.