Steve Wynn Crossing Dragon Bridge

[Blue Rose; 2008]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: alt-rock, songwriter music
Others: Mark Lanegan, mid-period R.E.M., Nick Cave

Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate) is on something of an unlikely comeback swing. His last three albums were hailed by critics, and his latest, recorded mostly by himself in Slovenia, was half-a-star shy of the coveted Allmusic Five-Star Guarantee, by which Allmusic guarantees that anybody who doesn’t download it is a total philistine and earns the eternal stony disapproval of Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

Whether or not you’ll think Crossing Dragon Bridge is epic depends on what piqued your curiosity in the first place. If smoky, LA noir verse, then yes. If darkly-shaded Americana, then yes. If you heard “Tell Me When It’s Over” on Left of the Dial and were hoping for proto-noise-rock, then no. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you were won over by 2006’s Tick ... Tick ... Tick, then maybe not.

On Tick ... Tick ... Tick, the Miracle 3 took Wynn’s songs, amped them up, and twisted them around, turning “Wired” into a rave-up and “The Deep End” into an ocean swell. Unlike that album, however, Crossing Dragon Bridge is a mostly solo affair. It’s a songwriter album, and as usual with songwriter albums, it can get pretty dull. Perhaps this can’t be helped; it is not the same game for a musical survivalist who has to sculpt an interesting whole as it is for a band that can collectively assemble one from parts. Short of a brain disorder, it’s hard to have much chemistry with yourself. Between writing songs, recording five or six instruments, polishing errors, and getting the right vocal take, there isn’t much time for the second-guessing and working-at-odds that give band albums their nuances.

It isn’t that there’s nothing inventive happening on Dragon Bridge. Actually, there are a lot of ideas jostling here: Slavic folk-dance with demented acid-rock cabaret (“Wait Until You Get To Know Me”); power-folk with a machine kick (“Annie & Me”); a raggedly-swelling strings coda that many bands try on and most can’t wear (“I Don’t Deserve This”); and “Manhattan Fault Line,” which sounds a note-perfect homage to late Go-Between Grant McLennan. Because of the lack of inner tension, though, you tend to notice these things rather than feel them in the music.

It’s too bad, because lyrically Wynn has never been stronger. He gets away with all kinds of narration that shouldn’t work, such as: “Geologists point to a line that is drawn/ From 14th Street to the Upper West Side/ The city could drop in a minute or two/ Stunned and surprised, for one hell of a ride.” You may be wondering how he spins a line like that as anything but ridiculous – so am I. Between improbable couplets are gems like “Everybody’s using up all their breath telling everybody else how to use their breath.”

Crossing Dragon Bridge is confident and prodigious as a piece of songwriting, but it's wedded to such ramshackle execution that its best moments are concealed in murk. It’s certainly no slump record, but ultimately it may be more curiosity than classic.

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