Jonathan Wilson has been a busy man for most of this decade. The last few years have seen him producing and playing on many an album, notably on all three of Father John Misty’s albums and more recently on Roger Waters’ latest, Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017). The first half of this decade also saw him release his first two solo albums, Gentle Spirit (2011) and Fanfare (2013). It is therefore a testament to the determination and sheer creative drive of the man that 2018 sees him, amidst the typically grandiose and excessive touring schedule of Roger Waters, releasing his third album Rare Birds. Taking what he has called a ‘maximalist’ approach to its creation, the outcome is a sprawling, near 80 minute behemoth of a record. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, it could well be one of those albums that separates the die-hard fans from the casual listeners. With rather intense themes and complex, engaging lyrics, it is not an album that deserves to be put on while you clean the house with only one ear tuning in occasionally. It is an album that seems to demand attentive listening, something that could make or break it for fans.
“Trafalgar Square” opens proceedings and long-time followers of Wilson might be surprised to hear the use of drum machines, samples and synths, which were absent from his first two records, all appearing in the first minute. It’s clear from the outset that this album will be breaking new ground for Wilson. The track rolls on with a driving rhythm. The Pink Floyd influence is all too obvious, but understandable given his proximity to that universe in recent times and still with his own distinct flavour. The album, recorded in his own Fivestar Studios in Los Angeles, was self-produced with some help from engineer Dave Cerminara (Cold War Kids, Imagine Dragons) and it seems that while they went for a broad, psych-infused sound, there was a clear and precise feel in mind for the final mixes, with the drum tracks being punchy and tight across the board and the vocals always being given a forefront position in the mix.
“Over The Midnight” was released as the first single in late 2017. Of the track, Wilson has said, “I wanted to write a song about a sacred place for lovers to exist… where nothing is savage.” This mood is executed well, with a piano-based melody underscoring some swirling, wind-like synth and dreamscape lyrics creating a sense of escape for the lovers of the world, “Yeah this world it is burning, but don’t it feel incredible? Whisper in my ear and tell me what you see in the flames.” Romantically apocalyptic and sensual, it is undoubtedly one of the highlights. “There’s A Light” is an uplifting and empowering song that exposes the heart of the album. Its powerful poetry is set across a soaring landscape of airy backing vocals, bustling drums and lap steel guitar.
The title track drops in with some tight drums, before erupting into a fuzzy, delayed riff set atop energetically strummed acoustic guitar. Here, Wilson gets a bit existential, revealing that we humans are the rare birds he speaks of. Telling a tale of our luck and fortune to land ourselves on this most wondrous planet and our subsequent demise as we continue down the path of its destruction. “49 Hairflips” is a harrowing portrait of heartbreak. Introduced with heavy and aching piano chords and slowly building with some backing vocals courtesy of Father John Misty, it gradually drops in some drums and begins to gather the weight of an anguished string section. A troubling look into a failed relationship, it carries some pretty sexually explicit lyrics which make for a truly tormented song.
Having gone through such a range of emotions, themes and generally long songs, reaching the end of “49 Hairflips” and realising there are still six lengthy tracks to come does make this listen quite a mission and it is around this stage that less dedicated fans might drop off. If you did choose to continue on you may be left wondering if it was really worth your time. “Miriam Montague” comes on like a nursery rhyme, not really going anywhere, as it spews forth a number of seemingly irrelevant phrases like “heartfelt hipster folkbots” and “pulsating vampire bats”. It goes back and forth between its two oddly contrasting sections before slowing into an off-key piano section not quite redeemed by an unexceptional saxophone solo. “Loving You”, featuring Laraaji, begins nicely with a relatively simple groove but tends to feel more like an extended jam that doesn’t really have any changes. It perhaps should have been trimmed significantly from its eight and a half minutes before finding its way onto the record. “Living With Myself” includes a collaboration with Lana Del Rey and is something of a saving grace for the second half of this record. Dark and introspective, it captures one’s attention from the first line, “I’m living with the fear of God every single day.” Del Rey provides backing vocals sparsely and the timbre of her voice resonates well with the misty, haunting synth strings. Some more anguished sexual reminiscence is packaged in “Hard To Get Over”, an eerie piano ballad/Matrix theme song hybrid, before the album comes to a close with a more traditional, not to mention gut-wrenching, piano tune. “Mulholland Queen” is a bitterly sad ending that was not quite expected from a ‘rejuvenating’ album. A sorrowful look back at the memories of a once perfect love affair, Wilson’s voice is accompanied only by piano and some strings towards the end. This track draws to a close what was an intense, intellectual and harrowing listening experience.
About as indulgent as they come, Jonathan Wilson has produced an album that will surely be divisive. It’s the type of record that may speak to the core of one person and yet be unlistenable for another. It seems clear that it was written from a purgatory perspective with the intention being to unearth his deepest feelings and desires. Though some may not have the stamina for it, Wilson will take you on a tour of his inner psyche if you let him. What you will find in there will be confronting, uplifting and touching all at once. Wilson should be commended for having the courage to go through the process of making a statement such as that.