It’s been over four years since Jonathan Wilson‘s last album, Fanfare, but he certainly hasn’t been resting on his laurels; last year alone he completed a worldwide arena tour on guitar and vocals for Roger Waters, produced God Is In The TV favourite Father John Misty‘s Pure Comedy album and saw the release of Double Roses, a very well-received album he partly produced and played on with Karen Elson.
The time has come now though for Wilson to spend some quality time on his own career, and so Rare Birds arrives. And it’s really quite something.
‘Trafalgar Square’ begins what was originally slated to be a concept album about the upper-mid-priced Monopoly properties, (possibly), and it packs quite a punch, an ominous rumbling bass and distant chiming guitars giving way to a track that sounds not unlike something that the aforementioned Roger Waters’ old pals Pink Floyd might have put on The Final Cut. If they had, it would have been the best song on it. The epic, near-7 minute track takes a couple of tangent turns into a dreamy soundscape and back out again before its done.
Though Wilson has previously (somewhat modestly) discounted comparisons with his namesake Dennis Wilson, second track ‘Me’ sounds for every second as if it could have been a lost track from the sadly departed Beach Boy‘s legendary (term not used lightly) album Pacific Ocean Blue. Praise doesn’t come much higher. It’s a staggeringly beautiful track, the scope of which is extraordinary. Make no mistake, the production on this album is off-the-scale lush, Wilson admitting that he had used up to 150 tracks on each song during the recording process, including, for the first time on a Jonathan Wilson record, drum machines and synthesisers.
The first track to be shared from the album (the sadly modern day equivalent of an actual single) was the 8-minute plus ‘Over The Midnight’, an up-tempo, exhilaratingly positive song (amongst the ostensibly rather more mournful stuff on the record which Wilson advises has a theme of exploring a failed relationship and its aftermath). It brings to mind The War On Drugs and includes the poignant lines “This world it is burning, but don’t it feel incredible? / Tell me what you see in the flames.”
Amongst Wilson’s own considerable efforts on the record comes a cast of notable contributors, such as Brian Eno collaborator Laraaji, Marmite mate Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty) and the entirely splendid Lana Del Rey, who shares vocal duties on the luscious “Living With Myself.” Wilson admits that the record is more influenced by 80s British production values than the oft-mentioned 70s Southern Californian sound, and this is never more evident than the Del Rey collaboration, which ebbs and flows and benefits from a remarkable attention to detail.
‘There Is A Light’ meanwhile is the poppiest track by some distance, another faster effort that sounds a little like World Party at their most chipper, and layers on Hammond organ and pedal steel as well as angelic backing vocals. Astonishingly, it turns out that the track is a first take, complete with magnificent drumming by long-time collaborator Joey Waronker.
The Tillman / Misty track, ’49 Hairflips’ is another slow burner, layering on multiple sounds with the vocals right up front. The album just throws up one devastatingly honest, soul-baring classic after another. Elsewhere, ‘Miriam Montague’ is a playful, almost Kinks-y number and the record’s first composition ‘Loving You’ uses the talents of Laraaji, which Wilson calls his ‘ode to John Lennon.’ His guide vocal captured the moment perfectly; it was left on the final version.
Hidden away as the penultimate song on a pretty long record is the country twang of ‘Hi Ho To Righteous’ which somehow manages to fit right in as well as sounding at odds with the rest of the record. If at first it appears relatively throwaway, it makes a case for itself on further examination.
On the surface, Rare Birds is a near-80 minute sprawling album, but it’s so engaging that it zips by in what seems like half the time. By the time the beautifully understated piano and vocal (and, ok, a few lush strings) of ‘Mulholland Queen’ closes the album out, Wilson has taken the listener through pretty much every emotional state. It’s an extraordinarily immersive listen and a record which continues to provide new sounds and feelings on every play.
Rare Birds is released by the ever-wonderful Bella Union on 2nd March 2018.