CD Review of Free Life by Dan Wilson
Recommended if you like
Semisonic, Carole King,
Fountains of Wayne
Label
American/Sony
Dan Wilson: Free Life

Reviewed by David Medsker

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H
e would probably be the last person to admit it, but it has to rub Dan Wilson’s rhubarb that his biggest hit is the one he wrote for someone else (the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” which netted Wilson a Grammy), while his own band, Semisonic, is neatly sealed in a box marked “One Hit Wonders of the ‘90s,” where they will remain trapped until the end of time. Wilson deserves better than this, of course, but then again, don’t they all? No band is ever going to say, “Yep, that one song is as good as I’ll ever get. I guess I’ll be going now.” Even Lou Bega and OMC will tell you that they had ten more songs that should have been Top 10 hits.

But Semisonic really was better than “Closing Time,” their ubiquitous 1998 hit about looking for love at last call. Whether they were as good as the improbable five-star review Q Magazine gave their 2001 album Chemistry, however, is another story. Chemistry is good – this writer, for one, still wonders how “Get a Grip” and “She’s Got My Number” failed to enjoy some kind of chart success – but a five-star album, it was not. With the band on hiatus, Wilson went on to work with whoever John Fields was producing, namely Glen Phillips and Mandy Moore (his work with the latter spawned a fantastic cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends”), only to hook up with the Dixie Chicks and Rick Rubin. Millions of records sold and a couple of Grammys later, Wilson finally sat down to make Free Life, his first solo album. If you’re familiar with Semisonic’s albums, then you already know how this album sounds, for better and for worse.

Annie Lennox

The great thing about Wilson is that his songwriting exists in a universe millions of miles away from the factory-spawned junk that plagues contemporary pop. This might lead to Wilson’s violent commercial death, of course, but credit must be given to anyone who values Carole King over Diane Warren. Indeed, Free Life is loaded with King-isms, from leadoff track “All Kinds” to “Sugar,” which is every bit as sweet/saccharine as you think it is (blame Sheryl Crow, since she sings backup on it). Luckily, Wilson hasn’t completely handed himself over to a higher power; “Breathless” and “Against History” would fit nicely on any of Semisonic’s records, and “Baby Doll” is just begging to be re-interpreted by, say, Nick Cave.

The key to whether you like or love Free Life will come down to that last third of songs, the ones where Wilson branches ever so slightly outside of his comfort zone. “Golden Girl” is a super-fragile ballad in the vein of Aqualung’s “Another Little Hole,” while the slow waltz “Honey Please” will blow away the last ten people still listening to Prefab Sprout. Sensing a pattern? Yep, Free Life is, by and large, mellow gold. This is great news if you’re, say, blogger Jason Hare, who writes a wonderful column on the subject. For everyone else, results may vary.

Dan Wilson is surely smart enough to know that the majority of the music buying public – whoever that is anymore – still has no idea who he is. The problem is that he didn’t use that to his advantage. There were no expectations whatsoever for Free Life, thus freeing Wilson to make something bold and ambitious. What he made instead is something good, but safe. Music should never be safe.

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