Friday, November 14, 2008

Steve Wynn -- Crossing Dragon Bridge (2008)

Steve Wynn -- Crossing Dragon Bridge (Rock Ridge)

While probably still best known as the leader of Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn has built quite the resume as a solo artist. After I picked up his latest, I realized I have almost all of his solo releases. I guess I’m a bigger fan than I thought.

And Wynn seems to getting better with every album. His last studio album, Tick...Tick...Tick, was an explosive rock platter. This new album is a pure songwriting album. In the liner notes, Wynn details how producer Chris Eckman (founder of The Walkabouts) had Wynn come out to Eckman’s home studio in Slovenia. Eckman sought to boil Wynn’s songs down to an essence -- just Steve and his guitar.

But this wasn’t just something out of the Rick Rubin with a classic artist playbook. After recording these songs in a spartan manner, phase two of the recording involved adding whatever other elements would be needed to enhance the song, whether it be strings from a Czech orchestra, or Chris (ex-Green On Red) Cacavas’s keyboards, or percussion from Linda Pitmon.

The resulting disc might be Wynn’s best yet. Of course, this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve written those words in a review of a Wynn album. That’s because he’s that good.

The album mixes eloquent and inspiring tracks with just enough of Wynn’s rock leanings. Early on, Wynn illustrates his capacity for the grand gesture on “Manhattan Faultline”. This bittersweet symphony uses the notion of an NYC earthquake zone as a metaphor for a relationship that falls apart all of the sudden.

The song is stately and dignified, with majestic chords and matching lead guitar accompaniment. The track steadily builds and when the strings kick in and Pitmon joins in with backing vocals on the choruses, an enveloping wistfulness transpires. Meanwhile, Wynn is philosophical without being overwrought: “You’d think at a certain point in your life/you’ve learned everything that you’re going to learn/but sparks lead to fires and fires lead to ashes/at least you know for sure you’ve been burned.”

Wynn gets a bit heavier on “When We Talk About Forever”. This is another track with string accompaniment, bolstering a folk structure that is somewhat similar to some of T-Bone Burnett’s early work, with a dollop of Lou Reed thrown in. It’s a lovely song about commitment, which fuses a measure of joy with a sober sense of the task that any couple knows is lying ahead. This is a mature and thoughtful piece of music.

Wynn shows the ability to mess with what he does well on the audacious “Annie and Me”. The song starts off as a spirited acoustic gallop, a tale of two teenagers who merrily live in a world of casual sex and petty crime. This could have appeared on other Wynn albums. But then the song then shifts into a totally different mood, with a slower tempo. In this second part of the song, and it appears that the protagonist is now older and full of regret, as if the upbeat part of the song is actually a flashback. This interlude comes to an end, with Kirk (Dumptruck) Swan’s twangy guitar in overdrive, and the defiant lyrics of the first part now meaning something entirely different.

On “Love Me Anyway”, Wynn looks at trust issues. Specifically, how tough it is to open up to someone: “Tightly wound and careful/surreptitiously/knowing that you’re knowing/only part of me/love me anyway.” These uneasy feelings are set to a slinky and funky blues rock rhythm, as if the music is supplying the intimacy the protagonist is seeking. Wynn is full of wisdom, observing about love “if it seems that easy/you’re not doing it properly.”

What makes this such a wholly satisfying album is that Wynn is at his peak as a lyricist, looking a personal relationships with acuity, wit and empathy, and expressing himself in terse phrases that cut to the heart rather than merely sound glib. The carefully crafted music gels with the lyrics to the point where they seem to be organically connected.

I’ve been steadily listening to this album for about two months and I’m still finding new nuances that add to my enjoyment. This record is one of the stellar achievements of 2008.

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