Wild Mercury Sound
Jonathan Wilson: "Gentle Spirit"
In his book Hotel California, Barney Hoskyns describes Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, in the 1970s as “A funky Shangri-La for the laid-back and longhaired, who perched in cabins with awesome views of LA’s sprawling basin.”
A short drive away is Sunset Strip, where Hoskyns’ cast of singer-songwriters could visit clubs and score drugs before heading back to their apparently bucolic idyll. The Canyon style, Hoskyns quoted film director Lisa Chodolenko, was “kind of lazy and kind of dirty and kind of earthy and sort of reckless.”
Some four decades later, the debut solo album from Jonathan Wilson feeds on this local mythology with such gusto that, at first, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a conceptual art project on the idea of Laurel Canyon. Or, perhaps, a satire on the mellow, hippyish music associated with the place. For 13 long tracks, Wilson and the friends who drop by to play on "Gentle Spirit" at least sound like they are phenomenally stoned. Crosby, Stills and Young are studiously invoked, Graham Nash less so: too straight, presumably.
There are songs called “Canyon In The Rain”, “Natural Rhapsody”, “Rolling Universe”, “Magic Everywhere”. Lyrics, correspondingly, achieve a sort of beatific wooliness: “Natural world she needs our energy,” Wilson sings on “Waters Down”, though his singing voice is more of a dry, awed whisper. “‘Valley Of The Silver Moon’ is a song about the modern music world not understanding what I have to offer as an artist,” he complains, with what one assumes is languid indignation, in the accompanying press release.
Wilson, who owns his own LA studio, actually appears to have done reasonably well from the music world thus far. As an associate member of the country-rock band Dawes, he has recently backed Robbie Robertson, a credit to put alongside work with Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne on his CV. Friends who contribute to "Gentle Spirit" include Chris Robinson and Adam McDougal from The Black Crowes, Gary Louris from The Jayhawks, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and Otto Hauser, plus a bunch of session vets (Barry Goldberg, Gerald Johnson, Gary Mallaber) with a shared past in the Steve Miller Band.
All-star jams are not always appealing, but if there’s a single precedent for much of Gentle Spirit, it is one of the best of them: David Crosby’s cosmically befuddled "If I Could Only Remember My Name". Wilson not only recreates the woody reverie of that album, he also synthesises Crosby’s air of vague, dissolute guilt. “Can We Really Party Today” finds the singer being stirred from his wilderness socials with a nagging suspicion his energies should be directed elsewhere, “with all that’s going on”. It’s not a protest song, as such, but a mildly neurotic apology from Wilson for not writing one. Fortunately, it’s also ravishing (a contemporary analogue would be Devendra Banhart’s underrated – and similarly baked - "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon").
“Valley Of The Silver Moon”, meanwhile, drifts along for a good ten minutes, anchored by a riff that, in a past life, may well have served time with Danny Whitten on “Cowgirl In The Sand”. And on the outstanding “Desert Raven”, Wilson does his best to complete the set, with a run of luxuriantly keening solos that would have done Stephen Stills proud.
Wilson is quite the guitar virtuoso when roused, and a propulsive freakout through Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” suggests his finest work may be produced in less horizontal moods. Mostly, though, a strung-out folksiness dominates, even when Wilson’s muse spins away from the canyons and into more ethereal realms on “Natural Rhapsody” (a nod to “Echoes”-era Pink Floyd) and “Woe Is Me” (a blues dirge in the vein of Spiritualized’s “Take Your Time”).
Reference-spotters, it more or less goes without saying, are going to have a high old time with "Gentle Spirit". The cumulative effect of all this historically-redolent data, though, is surprisingly transcendent. Wilson would doubtless attribute his album’s excellence to the ancient spirit and natural vibes of Laurel Canyon itself. But his debut illustrates a more prosaic act of creation, in which fastidious study is transformed into compelling new music: sometimes as homage; occasionally as inadvertent stoner comedy; mostly as an entirely satisfying late entry in the Canyon tradition.