Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds review

Secret Meeting score: 85

by Phil Scarisbrick

While Father John Misty gained notoriety for his playful use of words, all three albums under the pseudonym have been backed by impeccable sonic landscapes that are every bit as interesting as the lyrics themselves. These records were all co-produced by singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist, Jonathan Wilson. Aside from his day job playing guitar for former Pink Floyd main man, Roger Waters, on his behemoth-scale tours, Wilson has also found time to make records in his own right. His latest is the genre-bending Rare Birds.

Woven together with a myriad of influences and artistic nods, Rare Birds takes sounds that we’re accustomed to and uses them to forge a new path. Opening track Trafalgar Square sets off like the opening of David Bowie’s Five Years, before settling into a fuzzed-up, pounding guitar riff that recalls Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky. When described to you in such terms, you could imagine it sounds like a contrived mess. But it works beautifully and makes repeat listens increasingly interesting as you notice details that had previously passed you by.

The influence of Roger Waters is a definite thread through the album, most prominently felt on Me. The vocals would be right at home on Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, Dark Side Of The Moon. The central sax solo also feels very Floyd, but only in the most flattering of ways. The album’s shortest track is Miram Montague. Despite being the shortest track, it still clocks in at four minutes and thirty five seconds. This time taking nods from 60’s bands such as Love and The Pretty Things, the track rocks along in a very pleasing way. The lush guitar sounds evoking more recent acts such as The War On Drugs and Wilco – influences he revisits regularly on Rare Birds.

Father John Misty has provided his old friend some assistance vocally on the album’s most overtly graphic track, 40 Hairflips – rather fitting for the modern master of innuendo and musical satire. Elsewhere, featured vocalists include Lana Del Rey, Laraaji and Lucius, and while they add their own eccentricities to the music, the star is always the beautiful musical landscapes meticulously sculpted by Wilson.

Loving You bursts into life with layered synth melodies and barely-legible processed vocals, backed by simple, driving drums, again evoking The War On Drugs. While the backing track remains consistent dynamically, the vocals ebb and flow to make the eight-minute plus track feel anything but drawn out. Set over a stark piano, the album’s closing track Mulholland Queen is the most hushed moment on the record. What it gives us though is a chance to appreciate the quality of Wilson’s voice and his quality as a songwriter in its most pure form. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in all the sounds and layers on this record and forget they simply wouldn’t work unless the songs  were great in their own right. Mulholland Queen gives us this gentle reminder at the end of our journey, and closes the record out in sublime fashion.

Rare Birds is a victory. For all the influences, it never sounds derivative. For every knowing nod, there is something completely original. Most people, as I have in this review, will immediately mention Josh Tillman’s alter ego when Wilson’s name is mentioned. And while he can be proud of the work he did on those records, this is his finest achievement released under his own name. Previous albums Fanfare and Gentle Spirit aspired to hit the heights achieved here, but for various reasons didn’t have the same impact. On Rare Birds, all the pieces have fallen together to create a truly breathtaking record.