CD Review – DAN WILSON – Free Life

     September 11, 2007

Reviewed by Nico

I jumped at the opportunity to review Dan Wilson’s solo release Free Life. Wilson was previously one-third of Semisonic probably best known for the end-of-the-night bar anthem Closing Time. To me, Semisonic’s last release, All About Chemistry, was wall-to-wall good. I caught them live for the first (and sadly last time) on the accompanying tour and waited for a return trip or a new CD. On top of that, Wilson produced Haughty Melodic by a personal favorite of mine, Mike Doughty – formerly of Soul Coughing. I thought Free Life would be the perfect springboard for my attempt to tackle music criticism.

My immediate reaction to the CD was a strong “this isn’t Semisonic’s long-awaited fourth album”. Fans of their songs and sound would get the same gut feeling. It became a bit of a prejudice for me. Sure, Dan Wilson’s strong identifiable voice and the ease with which he travels into and out of his falsetto are present. What the songs lack, notably on first listen, is the hook. They have solid songmanship, but with a much more mellow leaning. The title track goes a little over a minute and a half before the drums kick in. The percussion on the adjacent track, Breathless, takes about a minute to kick in. This isn’t Top 40… This is Singer-Songwriter and possibly Adult Contemporary. That’s not saying those are bad things, they’re just not what I expected going in.

After repeated listening, the songs grew on me. There is a sweet simplicity to them; a bare sound to complement a bared soul. I especially enjoyed the female voice that joins in with Wilson sporadically. Alas, without liner notes provided, I can’t clue you in as to whose voice that is.

The best of the twelve tracks have got to be the middle duo of Come Home Angel and Sugar. With Come Home Angel, the haunting opening highlights the mood of the piece. The sheer yearning of the song is tangible. Sugar is a great example of Wilson’s voice melding with the accompanying singer to create a pretty throwback sound. The CD also finishes strong with the track Hand On My Heart, possibly the most Semisonic of all the tracks. I held out for it through all the tracks.

Fans who come to Free Life with expectations of the Semisonic sound will only find hints and shadows. This music is more reflective and thoughtful. With my idealized, red-colored headphones on, the songs were a letdown and Semisonic became an adjective. Once I let the music stand on its own however, I was pleasantly surprised and moved.

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