Jonathan Wilson wigs out but never looses his grip on the essential nuggets of pure pop music.
For all of his prodigious output as a producer, guitar player and arranger for a host of musicians (ranging from Americana friendly acts to Roger Waters) Jonathan Wilson always finds time to astonish with his own releases, be it the Laurel Canyon gorgeousness of ‘Fanfare’ or the laid back North Carolina sounds of ‘Dixie Blur’. His latest release ‘Eat The Worm’ is a much more adventurous venture, a kaleidoscopic trip which certainly fulfils Wilson’s aim, as expressed in AUK’s recent interview with him, to “do something a bit weird, a bit esoteric, and that was a bit off kilter.”
First off, the album sounds terrific. It’s quite sumptuous (if that’s the right word), multi layered and with sonic surprises and thrills throughout. A simple guitar melody can be suddenly interrupted by a smattering of strings while songs can twist and turn throughout with changes in style, melody and tempo almost in the blink of an eyelid. If this sounds like a recipe for chaos, fear not for Wilson keeps his hand firmly on the tiller, the songs strong enough to shine through while his lyrics are quite fascinating. He cites various “off kilter” musicians as influences on the album’s sound and style including the likes of Frank Zappa along with the much less famous Jim Pembroke, an English songwriter who had a brief spot in the limelight back in the ‘70s when he fronted the Finnish band Wigwam. Pembroke gets a mention in the album’s opening song ‘Marzipan’.
‘Marzipan’, to this writer’s mind is very akin to the late Harry Nilsson’s early songs in style and delivery. As Wilson sings along to his basic bar room piano motif, flurries of sounds and noises off scurry in and out while the lyrics are like a fever dream referencing Hank Williams , Chet Baker and others, true musicians as opposed to, as Wilson sings, “chat-room, AOL’ing, truffle shaving, Ebay scamming, freaks.” This sense of Wilson holding true to the pure faith of true musicians is carried over into the following song ‘Bonamossa’ where he derides his audience for thinking that “I’ll play the blues like Bonamossa, nasty filthy sleaze.” Rolling Stone also gets a kicking here on an odd concoction which opens with a Jews harp and CSN&Y like harmonies before a smorgasbord of strings and voices suddenly takes over and then just as suddenly ends.
Nilsson comes to mind again as ‘Ol’ Father Time’ glides into view, another simple melody, this time on guitar and eventually blossoming with strings and horns as Wilson rhapsodises about the titular Father Time who, as the seasons pass, causes the leaves to fall each autumn as if to say “fuck you all” and then posits on the molecular composition of water ( as he says, the disc is somewhat off kilter) and elsewhere on the album he sings of spending time with the cold water enthusiast ‘Wim Hof’ and laments the long lost heyday of New York’s East Village on ‘The Village Is Dead’ which name checks Moondog and again takes a pot-shot at current would be flashy guitarists. ‘The Village Is Dead’ is the most exuberant song on the album as Wilson layers it with a huge orchestral arrangement which is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s more vibrant songs. Also laden with horns is ‘B.F.F.’ which comes across like Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys on a downer, borrowing a faded ‘Surf’s Up’ arrangement as Jonathan Wilson casts a baleful eye on the West Coast’s legacy with “Jerry imposters in their online designer tie-die”. It is followed by Wilson’s Warren Zevon like take on ‘East LA’ which may be one of the best songs you might hear this year. Compared to the rest of the album this is relatively unadorned, it’s primarily Wilson’s voice and piano until a mournful horn section weighs in before the song dissolves with some glorious percussion.
While much will be written of ‘Eat The Worms’ unorthodox approach to linear songwriting and arrangements, at its heart it’s a glorious pop album, laden with the spirits of Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Park and, at a stretch, Todd Rundgren – all adventurers who weren’t afraid to mix experiment and popular music and Wilson ties all of them together in the closing song ‘Ridin’ In A Jag’ with its burbling bass, tympani percussion and the horn and string arrangements. It’s intelligent, well thought out and, ultimately, quite glorious.