Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Semisonic was a smart, craft-conscious pop band that became a joke thanks to its misinterpreted, out-of-the-blue 1998 hit, “Closing Time.” (It was about yearning, not boozing, OK?) The Minneapolis trio, led by Trip Shakespeare alum Dan Wilson, had no business being on the radio, and everyone seemed to know it except its record company. The group’s follow-up, 2001’s All About Chemistry (featuring a cover with a pair of beakers in a sexually compromising position), tanked, and everyone assumed the group wouldn’t be heard from again. Fortunately, Wilson was too talented a songwriter to give in after Semisonic’s free fall. In 2002, he began writing the songs that would eventually appear on Free Life, his solo debut, and to pay the bills in the meantime, he produced for and wrote songs with the likes of Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing, Jewel, and Jason Mraz, winning a Grammy this year for co-writing the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Things got even better when Sheryl Crow—for whom Semisonic opened during the band’s heyday and who appears on Free Life—recommended Wilson’s music to Rick Rubin. In the role of Free Life’s executive producer, Rubin has helped Wilson simplify and amplify the tracks he’s accumulated, giving them a stripped-down sound similar to Johnny Cash’s American series. He also made the album more of a treatise on existentialism with adult-contemporary leanings. It’s less cheesy than that sounds, but it’s not for the cynical. Wilson’s falsetto emerges frequently, and his lyrics often smell of skunky marijuana: “One life is all we ever get/And all we ever give up for it in return/Is all of the ones we might have been,” he sings on “All Kinds.” On the title track, he asks, “Will we get to do something?/Who we gonna end up being?/How we gonna end up feeling?/What you gonna spend your free life on?” Fortunately the instrumentation and arrangements are top-notch. Recorded live in the studio, the album’s sparse guitar and piano parts build and climax predictably—which is to say, the way good pop songs should. The album’s best songs (“Breathless,” “She Can’t Help Me Now,” “Hand on My Heart”) are enough to make even the irony-minded thankful that Rubin and Wilson put their heads together.