It’s funny how having one of those omnipresent pop hits, like singer/songwriter Dan Wilson had with his band Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” can become a bit of an albatross—a success you have to live down as you move on.
Fact is, though, while Wilson’s only just introducing himself as a solo artist, he’s certainly well beyond being a one-hit-wonder; the songsmith wrote a hunk of the Dixie Chicks’ massively successful Taking the Long Way, taking a Grammy for writing their leadoff hit “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
And even if he hadn’t already proven that the insistence of that “Closing Time” chorus hook wasn’t a fluke, it would’ve been hard to go wrong with the team he surrounded himself with to make his debut solo LP Free Life—the disc is executive produced by master producer Rick Rubin, sweetened by Sheryl Crow and Tracy Bonham’s voices, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench’s piano and Mason Jennings’ guitar, for starters.
You hear the benefit of those folks’ contributions, certainly—particularly Tench’s, as he plinks with graceful restraint over the sweetly mournful title track. But the core of Wilson’s simple, effective songwriting shows he didn’t necessarily need the help.
The disc doesn’t sound stocked with radio hits so much as contemplative and mature pop nuggets; he’s channeling classic pop, harmonizing with some Beatles influence and fingerpicking and strumming with the touchstones of time-tested folk. He’s thinking about love some, and life’s directions as you grow and realize you’re not so much waiting for life to begin anymore. It’s graceful and comfortable, even if Wilson’s not pulling out colors you haven’t seen before.
Rubin writes a forward for the album, saying that he “would suggest listening to this when you have a quiet moment with no distractions and can let the music take you away.” It’s good advice, certainly—the hooky melodicism of “Closing Time” is inherent in what Wilson’s doing here, but it’s conveyed far less obviously; gently, like someone who’s gotten enough of a handle on their own talent to not feel like they have something to prove.
“Let’s fall in love again, with music as our guide,” Wilson coos through “Free Life,” Sean Watkins’ nimble fingerpicking giving way to the chorus call of, “In the air the questions hang: Will we get to do something? Who we gonna end up being? How we gonna end up feeling?”
The lyrics sure sound like he was capturing that moment, the a-ha payoff that comes with earnestly seeking an understanding of our own personality, our own voice, our own place. And the easy, restrained but affecting melodies on Free Life convey the same sense—perhaps even more clearly.