Re-Covered, by Dan Wilson
In the 1970’s, there was a large amount of albums that were made by songwriters like Laura Nyro and Carole Bayer Sager and others which were pillaged for material by those who (generally rightly) believed that they could sing the songs better than the original writer, while simultaneously bringing the writer to greater critical renown for being able to help others have a better career as a musician. In this particular case, Dan Wilson has spent most of his career apart from Semisonic in trying to become a singer-songwriter (to generally little notice) and also in becoming a songwriter for hire for a lot of artists, to considerably greater notice, including multiple Grammy wins as a songwriter (both songs included here). What this album seeks to do is show a songwriter for hire recovering his songs (hence the title) and burnishing his own reputation as a songwriter while also trying to demonstrate how he can perform his own material in cover versions.
This album consists almost entirely of sparse acoustic settings of material, sometimes as piano ballads and most of the time as acoustic guitar-driven songs, sometimes with strings added. Doing a song-by-song review seems redundant because the production of the songs is so predominant and the vocals by Dan Wilson so whining that the stripped down nature of this particular production serves to bring out what is the least enjoyable about Dan Wilson’s music, namely the voice of Dan Wilson and his ordinary skills at the piano and acoustic guitar. As someone who is a big fan of Semisonic, this album demonstrates a lot of what is missing in Dan Wilson as a solo artists, in terms of fun and an upbeat approach, although it must be admitted that what makes this album at least tolerable to listen to is the songs. Dan Wilson brings some interesting and thoughtful material to the table, and if he has a lot to be desired as a solo act–Semisonic really plays to his strong suit as an able collaborator–he can bring the songs. In one way, this serves to the detriment of the original artists, in that so many of these songs appear to have been crafted as personal statements for the artists who originally performed them but end up being the work of a competent songwriter for hire, which undercuts the personal credibility of the songs even as it demonstrates Wilson’s skill as a writer. An error on the dust jacket that switches the order of songs 9 and 10 demonstrates that the graphic design of this album also lacks some credibility.
And these songs, it should be admitted, are quite a diverse group. Wilson’s career as a songwriter appears to have embedded him within the intersection of adult contemporary and country music where the importance of outside songwriters is still immense. There are some really touching and beautiful songs here–album closer “Closing Time” reminds us of the strength of the composition in this piano ballad cover, “Borrowed” gives a touching look at an adulterous relationship co-written by LeAnn Rimes and Darrell Brown, and one of the more lively songs on the album is not surprisingly a standout track in “Never Meant To Love You,” a song that deserves to be much better known. The fact that Wilson shows off songs written with John Legend (“You And I”), Josh Groban (“If I Walk Away”), Taylor Swift (“Treacherous”), and Chris Stapleton (“When The Stars Come Out”) demonstrate that he is a studio pro when it comes to writing, even if his voice is more than a little thin. Interestingly enough, some of the least notable covers here are of the most obvious songs, The Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and Adele’s “Someone Like You,” both songs that helped give him credibility as a writer but, in the latter case especially, remind us that a torch ballad without a belting voice is not nearly as appealing.