I can’t help but feel sorry for Jay Bennett. I have long been one of his champions, especially during his Wilco days. I mean, there’s got to be a reason that Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are their best albums, right? So far, Bennett’s solo work has let me down. He’s effectively been seen now as more of an Andrew Ridgeley to Jeff Tweedy’s George Michael, and hasn’t really done much to dissuade people of that unfair comparison. The real trouble lies in the fact that it doesn’t really matter what he releases, dud or underrated marvel. In most people’s eyes, it could never stack up to Tweedy, and that’s just downright unfortunate. In effect, Bennett is like the kid who, in grade school, used to be best friends with the future most popular kid in high school, only to be kicked to the curb once they reached larger (yet more shallow) waters.
Luckily for us, Bennett doesn’t give up so easily. Rather than give in and eat his sack lunch alone next to the bike racks, he has forged on. Bennett continued producing other artists’ work while also releasing a trilogy of his own CDs. The Magnificent Defeat is the third and final album in that trilogy, originally meant to be released late last year. But Bennett signed a new deal with Rykodisc, perhaps ironically as that label is now also owned by Warner Brothers, the parent label that released and then re-signed Wilco under a different banner. As stated earlier, the previous two albums, Bigger than Blue and The Beloved Enemy, left me cold, hoping for better vocals and a clearer direction. With The Magnificent Defeat, he finally delivers the goods.
At first I wasn’t quite convinced. Opening track, “Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster,” sounds so much like he’s trying to recapture the studio magic of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that it just reeks of sour grapes. At times it even sounds like Bennett’s trying to emulate Tweedy’s voice. By the second song, however, Bennett settles in. “5th Grade,” probably not a reference to my earlier analogy, is a fanciful look at young love, complete with a tinny toy piano. “Wide Open” is a country-rock honky tonk bar song that can rival some of Tweedy’s best alt-country compositions, but comes awfully close to the end of “Misunderstood” in one part. I privately urged Bennett to take it easy and get back on track. “The Palace at 4 AM” does just that, presumably named after his own solo debut. Now if I were to play this song for you without prefacing it in anyway, you might think that I had slipped on Elvis Costello. Hell, even if you caught a glimpse of that greenish hued jewel case, it would even further lead you in that direction. Bennett’s voice so recalls Costello, it’s downright eerie. Luckily, the song is incredible, easily standing among his best. The chorus is instantly unforgettable, containing Beatlesque harmonies and even a sitar.
“Replace You” returns to the country rock, but this time he’s helped out by former bandmates John Stiratt, who co-wrote the song, and Ken Coomer. Even though the lyrics seem to be about a bad relationship with a woman, some of the lines could easily be taken as directed at Tweedy including, “I tolerated every bit of your shit” and “It’s so dark in here, I can hardly find my way to leave you.” Of course, that makes one of the last lines, “So what’s a man in my position do to quit you for good?” a little bit Brokeback Mountain. The same could be said for “Thank You.” Bennett earlier echoed “Misunderstood” and so too does this song. Whereas Tweedy screamed “thank you for nothing at all,” Bennett says it just to be done with a particular bad break. After “The Palace at 4 AM” it’s easily one of the best tracks on the album. “Phone Book” brings us back to the Elvis Costello tribute, and again, it’s one that’s downright uncanny. Even some of the lyrics smack of Elvis’ genius, such as “with your boy-wonder science-fair station / You can probably pray for some chemical salvation.” In emulating Elvis, he’s managed to not only find a niche, but also to distance himself from the Wilco comparisons.
The remaining songs on The Magnificent Defeat follow in that same vein, sometimes reflecting the later production magic of the Beatles (“Survey the Damage”), sometimes a combination of Stevie Wonder, Three Dog Night and the Band (“Butterfly”), Chicago meets ELO (“I’m Feelin’ Fine”), and, oddly, or perhaps fittingly, a mix of Costello and Tweedy (the spare and lovely “Good as Gold”). The result is that I finally feel vindicated in my support of Bennett as one of the driving creative forces on Wilco’s `middle’ albums. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Tweedy fan, but there’s something about those albums that smacks of great collaboration. I’ve always felt like Bennett got a raw deal as depicted in the documentary film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, dismissed from the band unceremoniously, seemingly sprung from Tweedy’s inability to relinquish any semblance of creative control. As a producer, Bennett had always proved his worth, but until The Magnificent Defeat, his own material had left me cold. I love to be proven wrong, or is that right, or…whatever.
Elvis Costello – King of America
The Traveling Wilburys – The Traveling Wilburys, Vol.1
T-Bone Burnett – The True False Identity