Consistency can be a curse. Now into his fourth decade in action, Dean Wareham has a catalogue that contains unimpeachable masterpieces – Galaxie 500’s “On Fire” and the one-two mid-1990s punch of Luna’s “Bewitched” and “Penthouse” among them. But truth be told, he has yet to make a bad record. Luna’s less-ballyhooed later albums are understated but sparkling gems, and Dean’s duo records with his longtime partner Britta Phillips update the Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra template to marvellous effect. He’s nothing if not reliable. But that steadiness means that, at this stage, even longtime fans might be guilty of taking Wareham for granted.
We shouldn’t do the same with I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of LA. This 10-song collection, Wareham’s first solo LP in seven years, belongs in the upper echelon of his oeuvre, whether with Galaxie 500, Luna or otherwise. He’s in his comfort zone here –dreamy guitar pop matched with lyrics that find the balance between a cockeyed sense of humour and straightforward emotion. But the LP has more than enough new wrinkles to keep things interesting, enough surprises to always keep you on your toes. Wareham may not be interested in a dialogue with the Mayor of Los Angeles, but he still wants to connect with his listeners.
It’s the overall sound of I Have Nothing To Say… that draws you in at first. Produced and mixed by Jason Quever (Papercuts, Skygreen Leopards, Cass McCombs) at the semi-clandestine Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, California, the LP has a warmth and directness that results in a timeless feel. Wareham and Quever’s guitars shimmer, Phillips’ bass is melodic and full, and Roger Brogan’s drums are crisp. Most interestingly, Wareham’s vocals are mixed to the fore, a distinguishing characteristic compared with some of his previous efforts, where he’s been content to stay in the background. He’s always been an underrated singer, making up for what he lacks in range with impeccable phrasing and effortless coolness, that unmistakable New Zealand-meets-New York accent of his strangely seductive. Like Lou Reed, one of Dean’s formative influences, he does a lot with what he’s got.
Putting the vocals front and centre pays off, since the lyrics here are among Wareham’s strongest in years. There have been times in the past when his words have felt a bit like an afterthought, pleasant-enough word games slotted in between the solos. That’s not the case on I Have Nothing To Say…, ironically enough given the title. While it’s far from a Billy Bragg record, Wareham has politics on his mind, labour and capital, the haves and the have-nots. Much of the album was written in the lead-up to last year’s chaotic US presidential election, amid the ongoing pandemic and civil unrest, and those issues seep in throughout. The songs have a nervous, uncertain energy that place them firmly in the present day, even as Dean casts his eyes back to 19th-century dandies, the doomed daughter of Karl Marx and the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s. There’s anger here, too. “I’m getting hot under the collar tonight”, he sings in “Corridors Of Power”, lashing out at the one-percenters who are still calling the shots. “People who live in houses like that don’t know”. The album offers up more questions than answers, but after all, answers are few and far between these days.
Things kicks off in fine, easygoing fashion with “The Past Is Our Plaything”, fitted with one of Wareham’s trademark sing-song melodies and chiming guitars. With lyrics inspired by “The Man In The Red Coat”, Julian Barnes’ 2019 examination of “La Belle Époque France”, it handily establishes one of the album’s main preoccupations – memory and the passage of time. As such, it’s both hopeful and sad. “We’re making it up as we go”, Wareham sings, suggesting some level of blissful freedom, of agency. But the final verse brings this “beautiful dream” crashing down to earth. “The planes have been grounded, there’s nowhere to go/The city we loved is now lost/The towers have fallen, my brother is gone/As blue turns to grey”. It’s a gut-punch, delivered casually, but with ineffable melancholy.
That melancholy reaches its apex with “The Last Word”, which tells the story of Eleanor Marx – Karl’s daughter, an early feminist and Madame Bovary translator – who committed suicide in a rather Bovary-like fashion, heartbroken and despondent. Wareham and Phillips’ voices blend beautifully, bringing a little sunlight into the gloom, and the almost-bossa nova beat brightens Eleanor’s “long, sad years”. It’s a tragic tale, but sensitively told. Same goes for “Red Hollywood”, which pays quiet tribute to actor John Garfield, who refused to name names during the entertainment industry’s mid-century “Red Scare” and died young, some say of the resulting stress. “I’m so tired of living in the shadows”, Wareham whispers over a metronomic drum machine, sounding appropriately exhausted.
Not that I Have Nothing To Say… is just a bummer. There’s plenty of wit and spark, even in its darkest moments. “Cashing In”, one of the album’s catchiest cuts, is a carefree kiss-off, Wareham looking back on a career full of ups and downs –not without a trace of bitterness, to be sure, but mostly with the hard-won wisdom of a survivor. As the guitars curlicue around him, he gives us the LP’s finest one-liner: “Every fuck was a flying fuck”. A perfect moment, funny and triumphant all at once.
Ever since Galaxie 500 jammed out Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” on the band’s 1988 debut, Wareham has excelled at finding the ideal covers to complement his originals. He doesn’t reinvent these songs, generally; he just drapes his essential, elegant Wareham-iness over them. I Have Nothing To Say… doesn’t disappoint in this regard. First up, we get a true obscurity:“Under Skys”, a tune by the little-known late-’60s Boston garage-psych group Lazy Smoke. Wareham and co give it a loose and lovely reading, highlighted by creamy chorus harmonies, a hook nicked from John Barry’s “Midnight Cowboy” theme, and one of the longer guitar solos on the album, an instrumental break that drifts in and out like a dayglo daydream. Next comes something more familiar – Scott Walker’s classic “Duchess”, a gorgeous, oblique ode to a mysterious muse. Drawn from 1969’s Scott 4, the song fits Dean like a glove, with a deliciously languorous pace, gentle strums and an almost prayer-like ambiance. Transportive stuff – and hearing it, you’ll be surprised that Wareham didn’t tackle this one decades ago.
I Have Nothing To Say… comes to a close with the elegiac “Why Are We In Vietnam?”, with Wareham stuck in Echo Park, pondering the military industrial complex, alternate tunings and middle age. It recalls Galaxie 500’s “Snowstorm” a bit –just two simple chords, cycling back and forth. “I know I know I know the rule/I’m just another molecule”, Wareham sings, his voice fragile but unbroken. “I’m not supposed to sing the song/I must be doing something wrong”. Lyrically, Dean might leave us with a sense of helplessness in the face of larger forces, but the music tells us something different as the song slowly swells towards a majestic conclusion. He’s not giving up, he’s moving on.