After an exciting 2017 that saw him not only produce Father John Misty’s superb Pure Comedy, but also join Roger Waters’ band for his Is This The Life We Really Want? tour (an album that he also performed on), this year is looking even bigger for Jonathan Wilson. Rare Birds, his third solo album, was recorded while he worked on those two projects and echoes from both of those artists present themselves here. Based largely on the aftermath of a failed relationship (though not intended as a concept album), there is a sense of yearning throughout much of the album that will be familiar to all listeners, a recollection of a period that has been irrevocably lost in time. Yet, rather than wallow in misery, it is instead a type of fond nostalgia that runs through Rare Birds.
Opener ‘Trafalgar Square’ starts like a fever dream, one that wakes to a strong George Harrison-style guitar groove. It’s an instant big leap forwards from his earlier work, much of which was compared to the likes of any one of Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young. Instead, it possesses a glam rock stomp mixed with a dirty blues vibe (think solo Harrison being covered by The Black Keys), and sets a perfect mood for what is to come. With the sound of wind whistling through the air in the background, it brings a sensation of floating through the clouds – a feeling that Rare Birds returns to frequently. It is easy to see where working with Waters has added a suitably dreamy Pink Floyd aesthetic to the sound. Indeed, much of the album is a mix of both a cosmic or spiritual world and a more grounded recollection of love now lost. When they combine on ‘Me’, a soft piano-led meditation that transforms into a psychedelic freak-out for its climax, it hits upon a magical sweet spot.
At 79 minutes long, it is a seriously big record that is not in a huge rush to get anywhere quickly – indeed only three songs come in at under five minutes in length. By giving himself that space, stunning moments like ‘Loving You’ are created, with its hypnotically soft groove underpinned by a captivating chanting vocal performance by the legendary Laraaji. That track in particular feels like it is permanently expanding exponentially into the galaxy like a musical Big Bang – as Wilson sings, it is: “Mostly talent, mostly mystic/The rest is magic”. Lana Del Ray and Father John Misty are also present in the background of two of the best moments, the former adding a suitably dark, mournful and contemplative edge to ‘Living With Myself’ while Tillman appears in the long, dark night of the soul that makes up ’49 Hairflips’. There, Wilson sings that: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find”. That sentiment is perhaps the key to Rare Birds, an album that is intent on finding beauty and healing from a painful period.
As you would expect from such an in-demand producer, the entire record sounds gorgeous with a warm, rich and glossy glow emanating from within. A new addition to Wilson’s former oeuvre are the synthesizers and drum machines which form much of the background effects here. It is the mark of an artist willing and able to continue stretching himself in new directions, adding new layers to an already classic sound. ‘Hard To Get Over’, towards the album’s end, is superb. Urgent and surging strings lie across a drum beat, turning into an electronic rush of a crescendo. It is like nothing that Wilson has ever done before, and marks him out as a truly unique artist. Describing the sound as, “Maximalist”, there is so much going on in each track that it rewards and only really reveals itself fully on repeated listens.
Rare Birds is an album to bathe in and luxuriate to, one that builds a mood through the sheer scale and duration. In these days of Spotify and Apple Music playlists where tracks are cherry-picked and have all wider context removed, it’s deeply satisfying to find an artist that trusts in his audience’s patience for a ‘true’ long-player. Made with the aims of rejuvenation and reconciliation, Wilson has created an album that you will want to unplug yourself from the modern world for. Gorgeous.