Spend some time with it, though, and that's exactly what makes Mermaid Avenue Vol. II damn near as great as the first album. It spans the gamut of Guthrie's artistry, from his fiery political convictions to his faith in the verities of love and romance; from his pop-culture commentary to his knack for storytelling. Vocalists Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco's cracked-voice frontman, bring to the songs a panoply of emotions: shouting, righteous indignation; playful jubilance; tormented melancholy; the bubbly tingle of new and precious love. Wilco covers an equally wide patch of sonic territory, blazing like basement punks on All You Fascists, bashing out a bluegrass stomp on Airline to Heaven, pummeling a blues riff on Feed of Man, and serving up a shimmering mix of Beatles/Byrds jangle pop on the soaring Secret of the Sea and My Flying Saucer. And as on the first Mermaid disc, guitarist Jay Bennett proves he may be the most expansively gifted, outright amazing player in rock and roll today.
Equally amazing is how this motley collective manages to capture the spirit that underpinned Guthrie's greatest work without pandering to any purist ideals or neofolk notions, or losing their respective identities within the twists and turns of the lyrics. Bragg's seething-rage vocal on All You Fascists fits perfectly alongside his own political manifestos, just as the gorgeous My Flying Saucer echoes his best love songs. (The tragicomedy of Hot Rod Hotel, however, is all Guthrie.) It's Wilco, though, that best illuminates the elliptical poetry and sweeping beauty of II's finest songs -- the achingly hopeful Someday, Some Morning, Sometime; the forlorn self-examination Remember the Mountain Bed; and Blood of the Lamb, the kind of song that gives religious faith a good name. The album's centerpiece is Feed of Man, a rambling piece of wordplay with a manic vocal, skittering guitars, clattering drums, and a sense of purpose charged with electricity, mayhem, and unsightly beauty -- an homage to both Guthrie and his greatest disciple, Bob Dylan. Woody would've probably loved it.