By now we know that Billy Bragg and Wilco can do great things with the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. Their 1998 album Mermaid Avenue carried the mythic folksinger's legacy forward, creating modern but classic-sounding pop music that resonated with Guthrie's populism and deep morality. It would have been easy for artists so steeped in capital-F folk to crank out Guthrie imitations, and seizing the mantle of such a legendary figure would be intimidating to anyone. But Bragg and the members of Wilco had the confidence and imagination to put Guthrie's lyrics into a wide variety of settings: the bouncy pop of "She Came Along to Me," the lonesome-prairie country of "Unwelcome Guest," the garagey organ sound of "Hoodoo Voodoo."
The end result was miles better than all those crappy early-'70s Guthrie "tributes" -- featuring the likes of David Crosby and John Sebastian -- that clog up the folk section in every used-record store in America. Mermaid Avenue was one of those albums that everybody seemed to love, a consensus classic that raised expectations for the planned second volume of Bragg/Wilco/ Guthrie collaborations.
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2, recorded at the same time as Mermaid Avenue, largely meets those expectations. It isn't quite as diverse and energetic as the earlier record, and it takes a little more time to really get into, but very few of the faithful will be disappointed.
Maybe the biggest difference between the two albums is style. Mermaid Avenue clearly drew on the pop and rock influences of the artists; Vol. 2 is generally folkier and more acoustic-based. It's as if, having established on the first volume that they're not bound to imitate Guthrie's style, Bragg and Wilco are more comfortable letting folk elements into the songs. The opener, "Airline to Heaven," puts Guthrie's Okie-Christian lyrics to a dusty revival stomp; "Stetson Kennedy" sways catchily in the best Guthrie tradition; "Blood of the Lamb" draws on the dark, ominous currents in American roots music.
Not surprisingly, the stronger Christian imagery of Vol. 2 pushes Wilco into the foreground of this record more often than on the Bragg-heavy first volume. Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, famously dealt in the same rural moral drama as many of Guthrie's lyrics do here, sometimes in unironic God vs. devil terms. The image of Woody Guthrie as a cheery, simpleminded hillbilly clown is challenged by such haunted, complex musings as "Feed of Man" and "Blood of the Lamb."
Indeed, both volumes of Mermaid Avenue have been a welcome antidote to that overly simplistic picture of Guthrie. "Remember the Mountain Bed" overflows with intense romantic images as heartrending as anything else in pop music: "You laughed as I covered you over with leaves, face, breast, hips and thighs/You smiled when I said the leaves were just the color of your eyes." And it goes on like that for a full nine verses, never relenting in its intimacy and sweet melancholy. This song alone -- this single, forgotten Guthrie lyric -- would be enough to establish him, beyond doubt, as a great songwriter.
Completely switching gears, "Hot Rod Hotel" is a grittily detailed account of shitwork in the big city. "Old gum and hairs and sticky rags, old bottles on the floors/Gobs of spit and condom rubbers on the windows walls and doors," Guthrie's hotel porter complains before walking out and leaving the landlord to clean it up. Meanwhile, the near-punk of "All You Fascists (Are Bound to Lose)" is a perfect vehicle for Guthrie's witty sloganeering. Lest we forget, this song was written when there was a war going on against real, live fascists; Guthrie isn't talking about suburban cops who write tickets for skateboarding. The performances by Bragg and Wilco are just as first-rate as on the first volume, particularly Tweedy's vocal on "Remember the Mountain Bed" and Bragg's vocals throughout. But when the spotlight shifts to the album's guest performances, things go a little astray. Where Natalie Merchant's appearance on the first album ("Birds and Ships") was lovely and haunting, her "I Was Born" (on Vol. 2) is little more than a throwaway. And things go really wrong when Corey Harris steps to the mic for "Against th' Law," which sounds like a dish-soap commercial, or something you might hear at House of Blues. But on an album with so many great songs, such carping seems petty.
We live in a dark time for American music. Most of the best of our musical legacy (and this takes in everything from Sun and Motown to '80s hardcore punk and classic hip-hop) has been co-opted by those who would dull its power and betray its humanist instincts. And if you judge a nation's pop scene by what its teenagers are listening to, we're in serious trouble.
But nothing so powerful can remain shackled forever. A guy from Barking, England, and a few guys from Belleville, Ill., have shown us that there's always hope, that we don't have to accept the idea of music as something inoffensive that can help sell sedans or software. How long until Vol. 3?