Stripped of all the sonic trickery that has populated previous albums by Wilson, we get to see him in a new light.
There’s a scene in the movie Annihilation where Natalie Portman marvels at the mutation of the flora of the film’s setting, which exhibits the same level of mutation as everything within Area X, the film’s setting. “To look at them, you wouldn’t say they’re the same species. But they’re all growing from the same branch structure. So not just the same species – it’s the same plant.” This sentiment springs to mind frequently throughout Rare Birds, the 78-minute odyssey Laurel Canyon songwriter/producer Jonathan Wilson hit us with in 2018. It was a record that weaved through psychedelia and Southern rock twang without blinking, a blend of textures that could easily floor you with how seamlessly everything fit together. It sounded like music in a constant state of mutation while locking into place perfectly, like the artist who realized you can combine puzzles of the same die cut pattern.
Anyone who fell for that level of sonic tapestry-weaving might find themselves a little disappointed with Dixie Blur, his comparatively tame follow-up. Rather than bob and weave through different styles, he focuses his style and narrows in on something else: straight-up, uncut country music. There’s no gimmick or playful subversion whatsoever – it’s just Wilson and his band making something that doesn’t sound far removed from any other alt-country band out there. He didn’t skimp on parts, either – Dixie Blur showcases longtime Nashville players like fiddle player Mark O’Connor, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, and pedal steel player Russ Pahl, among plenty of others, all tied together with the production wizardry of Wilco’s Pat Sansone, who helped Wilson and his crew record the album live in the studio in just six days. The end result is a world that, no matter how you feel about good ol’ fashioned country music, feels blissfully inviting and devoid of any of the irony that might come from adopting a country form after trying on so many other styles.
Stripped of all the sonic trickery that has populated previous albums by Wilson, we get to see him in a new light. His voice is angelic and smooth, his voice pushed back in the mix just enough that it blends wonderfully with every other instrument, but it’s still prominent enough that he’s still able to dazzle and charm. He also gets introspective, too, and sometimes unambiguously so, like the standout “‘69 Corvette.” He delivers it at a gruff whisper amid gentle fingerpicking and lap steel, the lyrics a vivid family portrait: “Where daddy loved adventures in his ‘69 Corvette/ Six-pack of silver bullets in his arms/ Me and mamma will drink tequila and it gets us to cackling/ And I sit on those extra pillows all alone,” he sings not long before softly reminding the listener of just how fleeting those moments can be. Before he’s done, he goes right for the tear ducts: “And daddy’s got tennis elbow from practicing violin/ I see him slowing down, not an easy thing to swallow when it’s your old man.” He undercuts it with bouncy, silly numbers like “In Heaven Making Love,” but even that one allows for couplets like “I am remembering a moment, clear as a bell/ We were laughing, we were lovers, we were smiling still.”
Wilson still allows himself to deviate from the country template occasionally – “Oh Girl” sounds like a long-lost Elton John song that someone applied tasteful splashes of steel guitar and Rubber Soul-era drums to, while “New Home” treats us to a gentle, piano-heavy ballad that doesn’t even remind you of its yee-haw surroundings until halfway through, the aforementioned steel gently peppered in. Elsewhere, on “Enemies,” he seems like he’s aiming for Springsteen-like, with Max Weinberg-esque drums to match. Even those variations still fit perfectly within Dixie Blur’s mold, though – once you get over the fact that Wilson has wrangled his wanderlust, little about the directions he takes you in will shock you. Truly, the only song that falls anywhere near flat is “El Camino Real,” a boisterous barn-stomper that’ll get you singing along effortlessly, but it feels almost too on the nose to land as well as it should.
How do we judge the works of musicians who wrangle in their adventurous natures to make something straightforward? Do we consider it a cop-out, the work of someone stuck in one place – or do we view it as an extension of the bizarre nature of the sonically omnivorous? The box Wilson built for himself with Dixie Blur is big enough to accommodate plenty of touches that fit right at home with everything that came before it. In reining himself in, though, we’re able to see him as less of “a chameleon, a beautiful changeling” (as he sings on “So Alive”) and more as a talented songwriter with a hyperactive and expansive vision. Sometimes, the most adventurous thing to do is force yourself to work within rigid constraints, and on Dixie Blur, it pays off remarkably well.