“I must learn to pretend that these dreams are not killing me/I will study what is real,” sings Matt Wilson on “Dreams,” the opening track of The Twilight Hours’ shimmering debut, “Stereo Night.” The admission is likely to hit dreamer-workers of all ages with gut-punch honesty, but it’s especially poignant for anyone who listened to Wilson trill his dreams with Trip Shakespeare 20 years ago, and more than a little reassuring to know that this lonely astronaut is still out there, tethered to the planet and sucking hard on his oxygen mask while confessing his fear of the darkness, of wanting so much out of life that it occasionally hurts, and, finally, sprinting towards the light. And that’s just the first song.
The whole of “Stereo Night” signals a rebirth for Wilson, despite his concern that “nobody waits on my return, nobody waits on my dream,” and confirms that some of the most meaningful music in this crazy, mixed-up world (thank you, Dave Pirner) is being made by artists in their 40s and 50s, artists who recognize that Michael Jackson died too young at 50 and that time may be nigh for artists who bring chops and baggage and experience and wisdom — a survivor’s list on this month’s would-be hit parade release that includes Paul Westerberg, Chuck Prophet, Joe Henry, Ike Reilly, Rosanne Cash and this super-group for all ages, which includes Jacques Wait (whose many credits in heaven include as producer of the lost classic that is Jan’s “The Early Year” and co-author of The Hawaii Show’s hilarious Uptown Bar farewell monster ballad), and John Munson and Wilson, formerly of The Flops.
“Alex Chilton is a god to me,” Wilson told me in 1989, and “Stereo Night” is an offering to the darkness that bows but doesn’t bend to Chilton’s and Big Star’s best dark pop mysticism. But to this stranger-in-a-strange-and-getting-stranger-land who feels the earth move under his feet daily, The Twilight Hours are more meaningful than Big Star at the moment, because it’s similarly layered, lush, and lunar, but also because it’s obvious that these songs were made under great duress (i.e. modern life), and leaves Wilson admitting that, “The world is so confusing/I try to keep it cold and clean/I try to keep my lips together/And not say what I mean.”
Which is one, very understandable, way to go. Who needs the trouble of saying your piece, singing your heart out, in a world gone frantic and dim-witted? Thankfully, Wilson decides to do so, to continue to wake his voice in the wilderness, and from the outset wears his fears and joys on his sleeve, all from the perch of maddening middle age: “When I heard you were alone, I wanted to be your sun, your moon, your anything/When I heard you were apart I wanted to rush in and be the light or anything,” warbles Wilson in what is something of a damsel-in-distress shout-out, but the first time I heard it I was alone in my basement man cave, and grateful to have Matt along for the lonely ride that life can be.
To that end, these are songs that make something very close to peace out of growing pains, be it the divorcee who bids adieu to the safe cocoon of domesticity in “Goodbye Good Life”; the slacker haunted by an ex-lover from his bar-band days in the impossibly catchy radio smash “Queen Of Tomorrow”; the simply stated life-affirmation reminder “Yes,” which finds Wilson and Munson trading couplets like two old soul warriors who know each other inside and out; or the cries for freedom that are “My Return” and “Stay With You.” And when Wilson sings “I wanted to fit in” in “Alone,” he sounds like both middle age soft boy and middle-school mean girl.
The sum feeling, then, is that these dispatches come from a blues singer who has lived, not just endured, life. Along with his brother Dan, Matt possesses a true gift for singing to the heavens about real-life, and for making ordinary ornate. In doing so, at this late-ish date, he reaffirms a couple truisms about art and music:
That some of the best work needn’t come in a burst, in youth. That sometimes an artist comes into his or her own after sopping up the action, standing on the sidelines, and deciding that his or her one-of-a-kind perspective could perhaps add something to the big picture, the big sound, the big music.
That is what has happened with The Twilight Hours.
That is how “Stereo Night” sounds:
Like a dream come true.