As I watched Adele accept her Grammy for “Album of the Year,” I had a moment of surprise (the first shocker after three hours of predictable performances, winners, and speeches). There, behind the teary eyed songstress, stood a be-speckled gentlemen with a goofy smile on his face. Something about the guy felt strangely familiar…and then it hit me. Dan Wilson! (Or as you may know him, the lead singer from the 90s alterna-pop band Semisonic.) I’ve been a fan of the band since I was 17, back then jamming out to “The Great Divide” on what seemed like a daily basis. The instant I saw him, I knew exactly why he was there – he must have written music for Adele.
I had the same Grammy experience only a few years earlier when the Dixie Chicks won “Album of the Year” in 2007. Once again, he found himself on the stage surrounded by stars. No, he doesn’t have a Soy Bomb ability of storming the Grammy stage. In 2007 he offered up his songwriting skills for the Dixie Chicks, writing six of the songs on the album including “Not Ready to Play Nice,” another award winner that year.
Unfortunately, many would consider Semisonic a one-hit-wonder with their 1999 song “Closing Time” (another Grammy winning song). In the past year, even the band’s biggest hit has become the butt of jokes on “The Office” and in movies like “Due Date” and “Friends with Benefits.” The follow-up album “Chemistry” would be the band’s last, and since then, Wilson has been contributing his talents to such artists as Sheryl Crow, Jason Mraz, Carole King, Keith Urban, Josh Groban, KT Tunstall, Rivers Cuomo, Jewel, Katy Perry, and Dierk’s Bentley (his current hit “Home” was another Wilson creation).
After spotting Wilson at the Grammy’s this year, I did a quick Google search to discover that he co-wrote Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You,” plus a couple other songs on her award-winning album. At this point, he’s become the music equivalent of Forrest Gump, working with every major pop star and providing them the songs that have kept their fame flourishing.
As the realization set in that he’d done it again, I was both proud and annoyed. Why did this awesome songwriter have to become the Deus Ex Machina, the puppet master, the perennial man behind the curtain? If he’s such a talented songwriter, why wasn’t Semisonic able to continue thriving? Instead, all these leeches were sucking the talent out of him without much fanfare. And what of his former band mates? Where are they now? Selling records at the Electric Fetus? Offering up their services down on Hennepin Avenue?
Just think about it: two “Albums of the Year” Grammys in a five-year stretch. Not that I have much respect for the Grammys, but that’s unheard of! Not since Stevie Wonder in the 70s has an artist had a stretch of Grammy success like that. Yet no one beyond old school “Great Divide” era fan-boys like myself saw him on that stage. There, behind the tears and smeared make-up, stood one of the finest songwriters of the past two decades, and no one knew it.
I couldn’t help but think of the Semisonic song “The Prize” and feel like he’d become a hypocrite. On this poignant song he sings of the day Kurt Cobain died and how all the songwriters around the world were mourning in a way that they do best, writing songs to express their feelings. On the song he sings at one point: “The magazines still have to sell us /12 master geniuses a year/ it’s all so shameless.” The lyric spoke of the gutless music business, constantly looking for the next big star, capitalizing upon them, and then tossing their carcasses aside when the next fresh face arrives. And now, here he was 15 years later, a cog in the hit machine he once loathed and called “shameless.”
If you don’t know “The Prize,” you should:
At this point in the Grammy proceedings, Sir Paul McCartney was performing, a timeless wonder still rocking out after all these years. Near the end of his performance, other greats like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Joe Walsh came onto the stage and joined-in on the guitar tomfoolery. And that’s when I had a realization. Guys like McCartney and Springsteen are rare. Very few legends have been able to survive the music landscape like they have for decades – most rock and pop icons eventually just fade away. Before Whitney Houston’s death this weekend, I can’t remember the last I heard her name (I’m pretty sure it was on “The Soup”), and the same can even be said for the King of Pop himself (before his death, when was his last hit album, not counting greatest hits compilations?). Predictably, when they both died there was an outpouring of sadness and a huge rise in album sales. There is no doubt that it is hard to sustain a career these days with our easily distracted world of constant consumption, and only a chosen few have been able to pull it off.
I realized I couldn’t be mad at Dan Wilson. Instead of trying to tread water in the world of popular music, he took the dry road, letting his talents help others get a taste of the success he felt back in 1999. A few years ago he released an album of solo work, and he’s suggested in interviews that he’d be interested in getting the old gang back together someday. But for now, he’ll continue allowing others to speak his words and sing his melodies. It’s a bitter pill to swallow as an old school fan, but in the end, he gets the last laugh. While McCartney, Grohl, Walsh, and Springsteen wowed the crowd, Wilson could sit back and take pride knowing he had more “Album of the Year” Grammys then the four of them combined. Not bad for a man many would refer to as “that guy who sang ‘Closing Time’.”
Adele’s voice is great and all, but I’d take the Dan Wilson version any day, the voice of a songwriter singing his own song: