At what point is an album too long? We all have a limit on what we’re willing to sit through, but to borrow from film critic Roger Ebert, no good album is too long, and no bad album is short enough. This is an oversimplification, of course, but albums like Kamasi Washington’s masterful The Epic (173 minutes) and, by contrast, this year’s slog Culture II by Migos (106 minutes) prove that a record is only too long if the people making it don’t know what they’re doing. At first blush, Rare Birds—the third album by Laurel Canyon’s Jonathan Wilson—is a record that could fall into this trap at any moment. Rare Birds stretches to 78 minutes, but it’s impressive that it not only can be listened to as one long session, but perhaps should be heard this way.

As the producer for Father John Misty (who, by the way, can be found singing backup several times here), it shouldn’t be shocking that Wilson knows how to effectively work with pop music as a guiding light. It would be a disservice to Wilson, however, to directly compare the two artists, as Josh Tillman’s relationship with ‘70s and ‘80s pop music feels almost corrupt by comparison. Every square inch of Rare Birds screams of a deep devotion to the sonic excesses of yesteryear, as though he’s too indebted to those textures to make anything else—and everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Frank Zappa to Little Jimmy Dickens and Chet Baker will be name-dropped before the album ends, their fingerprints lifted to help build one uniquely satisfying record.

Here, genres blend together seamlessly. Opener “Trafalgar Square” lurches into life with mock-Dark Side of the Moon prog meandering before settling comfortably into a blues-rock skeleton. Later, on “Hi Ho the Righteous,” Wilson performs a similar trick in a way that feels both effortless and yet brash in the risks he takes. It’s a testament to Wilson as both a producer and a musician that these kinds of moments happen frequently and yet don’t feel jarring.

Leapfrogging from genre to genre, the patchwork album is pastiche that finds its voice in the techniques of the musicians that influenced Wilson, but this means that it ultimately can neglect to forge its own sonic identity. To help counteract this, Wilson’s vocal prowess helps give the album a unique voice—and it works better than it should. Take the stellar “49 Hairflips” for example: on paper, a line like “We were burning, we were looting/ We were learning one or two things about life/ We should fuck right in front of them/ Just to show them our light” might sound clumsy, but as he sings about rimming and DayQuil before he eventually nestles into “I miss your laugh the most/ I really miss it tonight,” it’s hard to not feel the same dull ache.

Wilson is rarely direct in his songwriting, but traversing this oblique terrain yields rewards. These songs gravitate towards memories of young love and lust, and every song has at least one knockout line: “I’m living with the fear of god every single day I’m living with myself, I know not enough of whom I speak” from “Living with Myself” or “Moments of heaven/ Frozen in a van with you, girl/ I miss the lightness of laughter with you” on “Sunset Blvd.” Unfortunately, Wilson’s predilection for candidly singing about sex (both directly and indirectly) on several of these songs is a potential turnoff. Lyrics like “The way you fuck with abandon/ In every lucid dream you’re the soul receiver” (“Hard to Get Over”) borders on cringe-worthy, and though it also does well in painting a portrait of youthful abandon, “49 Hairflips” often toes the line of tastefulness. It’s brave to embrace the role that sex plays in our memories of former lovers, but this is one of the few areas in which Wilson doesn’t always stick the landing.

Ultimately though, there’s something awe-inspiring about how deftly Wilson dances through different spaces, and huge swaths of time could be spent within the album’s interior, digging through all of the densely-layered production and fascinating songwriting. Considering just how easy he’s made it look to build an album with this many moving parts, you’ll start to wish Rare Birds was twice as long.

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