Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Music Review)

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions cover

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

With digital music the new standard, CDs and their packaging have gone sharply downhill in quality over the past few years. Unless something makes it “special”, such as collectors’ editions or vinyl, physical media is an afterthought. But as the new reissue of Mermaid Avenue shows, even the deluxe releases may be trending downhill.

Mermaid Avenue certainly deserves an upscale release, especially as part of this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded these unfinished songs of Guthrie’s only fifteen years ago, but they have already become a central part of the man’s legend: Playful and serious, sexual and political, Guthrie comes across as a much more well-rounded person than anyone ever knew, and his lyrics still feel fresh in today’s folk scene. The project seemed to bring out the best in all participants, especially Bragg, whose solo work rarely lives up to his potential. The first album was the strongest of the project, but the second is still a minor classic on its own.

The main selling point of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is that it contains a new third album. While not quite as strong as the first two, it’s worthy of release on its own. The problem, though, is that there’s no way to get it on its own. All three must be bought together at a $40 MSRP, even though you probably own at least one of the others already. That “deluxe packaging” is simply a fold-out cardboard case whose promised “booklet” is an introductory letter and the lyrics to all the songs. It also comes with The Man In The Sand, a (previously released) documentary on the making of the original album. This is worth watching once: The people and music are interesting enough to carry the piece through, despite its fluffy marketing nature. But there’s little depth or conflict to make it worth returning to. (A part near the end covers conflicts about which songs and mixes to put on the album, but it both starts and ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with no more knowledge than what the musicians were willing to say to the camera.)

That mainly leaves album number three to justify this. And it does, more or less. So many good songs were still available that it doesn’t feel like scraps from the cutting room floor. There may be a few more filler songs on it, and it feels a little less like a complete album, but it could just be that I’m comparing something new to comfortable old classics. There are several great new songs, including the rousing folk-punk “My Thirty Thousand” and the Occupy-relevant “The Jolly Banker”. If there’s a complaint, it’s that many of the best songs have already been released as promos or in the She Came Along To Me EP years ago. It feels like a blatant money-grab that you can only get this as part of a larger set.

And that’s where the recommendation lies. Packaged like a simple “triple-length album”, but priced as if you’re buying three separate ones, this is neither the deluxe edition the project deserved nor the sale that might have made sense for music from the 1990s. If you have neither Mermaid Avenue volume yet, then buying this set is a no-brainer. But if you already have some of the music, this just isn’t worth it.

Grade: B-

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