Dan Wilson is like one of those great character actors you admire; you respect the body of work, you recognize the face but you can never quite remember the name. In this case you would probably recognize Wilson’s voice – he was formerly the lead singer for the bands Tripp Shakespeare and Semisonic (think “Closing Time” and “Chemistry.”) Last year he won a Grammy for Song of the Year for penning “Not Ready To Make Nice” as well as co-writing a half dozen other songs on The Dixie Chicks Taking the Long Way which took album of the year honors. He is a successful producer who’s worked on projects with Mike Doughty Jewel, Rachel Yamagata and Nickel Creek. Despite his impressive credentials Dan Wilson remains largely unknown to all but the most astute music aficionados.
Thank goodness for Rick Rubin and his American Recordings label. Rubin is a strong advocate for smart songwriters and seeks out new talent on the advice of fellow musicians. In this case it was Sheryl Crow who alerted Rubin to the Minnesota artist who was struggling to release his first solo effort. Rubin was blown away by Wilson’s songs and promptly introduced the writer to the Dixie Chicks and signed on to help produce Wilson’s album.
Free Life is a superb solo debut that displays Wilson’s remarkable ear for elegant melodies, heart for romantic sentiment, head for thoughtful lyrics and a voice that is pure pop-gold. Fans of Semisonic will immediately recognize his sweet clear, sweet phrasing on the opening track “All Kinds” a song that sets the stage for the record’s theme – love, lust and vulnerability. But these songs are mellower than a Semisonic record. Wilson has had the time to expand the songwriting formula he employed with his former band and he’s had the time and inspiration to do that. According to Wilson his two main influences on this recording were Tom Petty’s album Wildflowers (also produced by Rubin) and Neil Young’s advice (found in the book Shaky Town) to focus on singing live with a band. Although there is clearly a great deal of consideration put into the production of these songs the arrangements are not as heavily layered as on Wilson’s earlier work. The real star here is the songs. There’s plenty of room to move around within them as a listener, catching different phrases, harmonies and subtle instrumentation with each additional spin.
The songs on Free Life have marinated since 2005 when Wilson completed the album but was unable to move on the project due to a lung ailment that sidelined the artist for a year. When he was ready to record he was joined by a line up of musicians he has worked with in the past and a few guest appearances, namely Sheryl Crow, Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and Benmont Tench (who performed on Wildflowers). Some of the songs on this release are immediate ear-catching like “Sugar” and “Cry” but I like best the waltzing “Honey Please.” Those depth cuts are worth seeking out with repeated listenings.