Steve Wynn is probably the greatest rock songwriter of all time. In terms of sheer output, tunefulness and consistently brilliant lyrical vision, he left Dylan and the Stones in the dust in a previous century. Since then, literally hundreds of songs later, he hasn’t let up. His latest and arguably most ambitious project has been to release a new album with his legendary, recently reunited 80s band the Dream Syndicate. Long story short: their dark, epic, surprisingly diverse new record How Did I Find Myself Here – streaming at youtube – could be the best album of 2017. Find out when this year’s best-of page goes live here in December!
[If you know the backstory, skip down a couple of paragraphs to find out what new album sounds like] Back in the 80s, when half the world was bopping to synths, a bunch of guys – most of them in northern California – created a savage new sound equally informed by psychedelia, punk and Americana. The critics of the day, doofuses that they were, dubbed it “paisley underground.” In reality, it didn’t have anything to do with paisley, the musicians were hardly what you’d call hippies, and they weren’t exactly underground either. In the 80s, as Reagan-era deregulation created a tsunami of media mergers and a resulting tidal wave of radio blandification, the college airwaves became what Spotify is now: the place kids go to find out about new bands.
The Dream Syndicate ruled college radio, and were frequent tourmates with the era’s biggest college radio act, REM. Even without the new album or recent reunion tours, the Dream Syndicate’s place in history would be secure. It’s safe to say that without Wynn’s signature blend of dueling guitars, pyrotechnic jams, gallows humor and tersely literate, brooding lyricism, there probably wouldn’t be any such thing as Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth would have been just another CBGB hardcore matinee band.
That’s a mighty heavy legacy to carry into the studio, but Wynn and the group pick up like they never left off. If the Dream Syndicate hadn’t broken up in 1989, would they have embraced dreampop, and spacerock, and the far reaches of psychedelia that they do here? We’ll never know. What is certain is that the band are just as feral, yet focused as they were thirty years ago. The lineup changed in the 80s, and it has again: taking the place of the band’s last lead guitarist, the purist, bluesy Paul B. Cutler, is Wynn’s incendiary Miracle 3 bandmate and sparring partner Jason Victor. Behind the guitars, bassist Mark Walton and drummer Dennis Duck provide the sturdy support that music of this magnitude requires. If there’s anything to distinguish a Dream Syndicate album from a solo Wynn effort, it’s that this rhythm section’s backbeat drive empowers these epics to reach their destination.
The first track, Filter Me Through You refines the dreampop influence that Wynn first touched on in his 2010 Northern Aggression album, but with the angst and guitar push-pull of the Miracle 3. It’s Wynn’s signature post-Velvets riffage through a glass, darkly, with an elegaic edge, “So that you can’t miss me when I’m gone,” as he puts it.
With its vast, swirling reverb-guitar atmospherics, Glide moves further into spacerock: an unrepentant hedonist’s anthem, it could be the great lost track on a Church record from the late 80s, Wynn and Victor subtly swapping good-cop and bad-cop roles. Out of My Head blends the skull-splitting twin-guitar assault of the band’s iconic 1981 debut The Days of Wine and Roses into an acidically whirling vortex over a steady, tense pulse: it’s hard to tell whose guitar is whose.
Wynn loves the occasional wry reference to his back catalog: Walton’s bass lick that opens 80 West is a prime example. This is one of those fantastically allusive film noir narratives that Wynn writes so well: even as his voice rises to a scream on the chorus, it’s not clear exactly what kind of horrible thing the driver in this desperate high-speed scenario did when he finally snapped. “The only thing that scares me more than getting caught is to stop and think about the live I’ve got,” Wynn’s frantic protagonist explains.
Like Mary is a classic Wynn character study: lyrically, it’s the album’s most harrowing track, a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty. “In her dreams there were people watching as they lowered her into the ground,” Wynn intones, ‘In her dreams she was beautiful, lying on the floor.”
Wynn and Victor slash at each other through gritty tube amp distortion, searing upper-register wails and distorted roar as The Circle motors along: it’s the closest thing to The Days of Wine and Roses here. The biggest surprise is the title track, eleven echoey, enveloping minutes of psychedelic noir funk that rises to a searing, distortion-and-feedback-infused sway. With its latin soul allusions and eerily starlit Rhodes piano, it’s sort of the band’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Original Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith makes a welcome vocal cameo in the hypnotic and unexpectedly upbeat closing cut, a droning, pulsing, Indian-inflected psych-rock tone poem of sorts.
The Dream Syndicate are currently on tour in Europe – where they are huge again – and return to New York for a stop at Bowery Ballroom on December 2. The equally legendary Richard Lloyd of Television opens the night at 9; general admission is $25, and be aware that this might sell out.