The Complete Michael McDonald Review, Pt. 1: Wide Open
by JD Ryznar
Creator, Yacht Rock. Host, Beyond Yacht Rock.
I fucking love Michael McDonald. But for an artist who makes me happy just going “Hooooooo, yeah-ee-eah,” I've never done a deep dive into his complete works. So, in this series, I will review every single Michael McDonald album, track-by-track, in backwards chronological order. I will not skip an album, so that means slogging through all the Motown and Christmas albums and stuff. I don’t know what I hope to find on this journey, perhaps by going backwards, I’ll be indulging my dream to live in a fantasy world where Michael McDonald slowly returns to relevance. We’ll start with his latest release.
“Hail Mary” is the name of the first track on Michael McDonald’s Wide Open album. Released in 2017, it’s his first album of original songs since 2000’s Blue Obsession. As the album kicks off, I’m all - “Ooh, that’s kinda hip. He’s really IS going for a Hail Mary.” For those of you not into American football, a Hail Mary is a long pass at the end of the game so hopeless, the quarterback doesn’t even bother praying to Jesus, he settles for Jesus’ mom. Sometimes the catch is made, the game is won, everyone shits themselves with excitement. Mostly, the ball is batted away or intercepted and the quarterback shoots himself in the middle of the field so he doesn’t have to face another second without the greatness that might have been.
That’s how I feel about this album.
Michael McDonald has only lost an eighth of a step since his heyday. After he and Kenny Loggins collaborated with Thundercat on the “Show Me the Way,” I was convinced that, given a taste of modern relevance, Mr. McDo would scream, “Get me the hottest young producer! I’m gonna raise the bar for legacy artists!” He’d throw this album fifty yards, smack into the sticky hands of wide receiver Odell Relevance Jr, who is, forgive me, WIDE OPEN in the end zone. Unfortunately, this release was intercepted by Richard Shitty-Uninspired-Adult-Contemporary-Production. Another loss for the LA Yachters. Another win for the Nashville Boring Old People.
Nashville is where genius goes to live on some acreage - out to pasture, if you will. Make the Nashville move and artists get suffocated by the most competent bores in music. Michael McDonald asks in this song “Does my voice still carry?” And the answer is HELL YES, BRO! Problem is, the dullard creatives seeing this album through are beating it down. The sax solo in “Hail Mary,” is the picture you see when you look up “sax solo” in the dictionary. I think it’s played by Branford Marsalis, who is the picture in the dictionary for the word “safe.”
The next song is the bluesy doozy, “Not Strong Enough,” in which McDonald appears to be making excuses for his paycheck-cashing producer. “Maybe it’s my fault that my album is boring, perhaps I no longer have the goods. I only barely have enough juice for this.” BULLSHIT. We’re two for two on songs where Michael McDonald sings about how he’s lost almost all confidence in himself, but is not ready to give up. These are real feelings I’m sure he’s struggling with but all I’m hearing is that awesome voice, still powerful. This song ends with an interesting New Orleans first line dirge, which backs up my theory that so far, this album is the story of a man giving himself an affirmation in the mirror while holding a gun to his head.
“Find It in Your Heart,” breaks mine. McDonald kicks in with a daring vocal melody, reminiscent of his performance with Thundercat, but the backing track is a hack comedy parody of a porn score. There are a couple heartbreaking lines in this song “Oh, the loneliness at the end of every dream” (my career was awesome, now nobody loves me) and “Let go of your fantasies
And start looking for something real.” Sure, he’s talking about love with that line, and it’s great advice. But this is in context of a great talent who deserves forward thinking artists to help him make a bold comeback but who then makes the “real” choice by hiring old faithful Branford Marsalis to play saxophone. It bums me out. “Find it in your heart” is another affirmation to get himself to trudge up the hill to record another album. Mike, there’s an escalator made up of hot, young producers right there next to you. USE THE ESCALATOR!
At this point on the album we need a banger chorus and “Half Truth” provides. It feels like Pearl Jam from, like, 1998, after we stopped paying attention to them. It bangs so hard in the chorus and then slows down over and over again to just a sludgy blues verse with a lazy harmonica. This is a song about a breakup, but with lyrics like “So why should I lie awake like it's my own damn fault?” it feels more like a song where Mike is pining for his lost relevance, this missed opportunity to put something out into the world. But this is not your own damn fault, Mike.
But try telling him this after the next track “It Ain’t No Good.” This album is starting to feel like you’re on a date with the most handsome, kindest man in the planet, but he’s dressed in Walmart clothes and keeps talking about how ugly he is. Perhaps Wide Open refers to Michael McDonald’s soul. He’s opening it to us. We’re taking a close look at a guy with confidence issues. He sings, “Haunted by the memories you're not willing to cut loose.” Don’t feel guilty that your albums used to have musical relevance. Your voice still does, broheim. That’s the foundation upon which the next great Michael McDonald album can be built.
Next up, time to gather round the campfire, self-conscious Uncle Michael’s got a story to tell. “I'm a skater on the lake of love, always gliding on the surface of deeper feelings but never falling through.” This guy doesn’t even think he can love right. “Honest Emotion” is the name of this song about this element he finds so rare. If only we could be as open with our emotions as Michael McDonald doesn’t think he is, what a world it would be.
Once that sinks in, we’re on to more waka-waka 94.7 The Wave porn soundtrack with the song “Blessing in Disguise.” He finds one of my sentiments in listening to this album: “All I know, I've got to find the good in this.” Which is really hard to do when your favorite singer is reduced to performing over music that would feel most at home under Kenny G or David Sanborn. But there’s a pretty badass bass-synth fart in this one. See how hard I have to scrape to find the good in this?
So now that we’re on a track called “Dark Side,” which is another song about a romantic breakup -- on the surface, I’m starting to realize how strange it is that a man who’s been married for 30 years can be writing so many breakup songs. I’m telling you, people, this is an album about his career, and it’s making me really, really sad. Imagine you break up with someone who you really loved. The thing you most admired was their ambition to change the world. Then, you check in 30 years later and they’ve settled into a standard existence. But all they talk about is how bad it sucks that they lost their ambition, and how hard it would be to get it back. That’s what this album feels like to me.
“If You Wanted to Hurt Me” is some nice, boogie-woogie Doobie shit. This sounds most like an old Michael McDonald track. It’s got great energy and he sings its balls off. So if you really wanted to hurt me, Mike, this is a great way to do it. Put a song like this on an otherwise unremarkable album. While I would have been most excited about a forward-looking album, I would have been satisfied with music like this, capturing the sound of a heyday, where the bangers have this kind of energy and the slow jams have a richness that sounds great on a rainy day in front of the fireplace, drinking a big-ass glass of red-ass wine while you talk about jazz with your lover.
And then BLURP. That’s the sound of this album sinking back into an uninspired groove of concentrated boring with the song “Beautiful Child.” This is a song so dull with unceasing musical adequacy, even as Mike’s voice and melodies deliver a powerful chorus, all inspiration is capped and made reasonable. Where Michael McDonald wants me to run for president, the music is telling me to settle for occasionally speaking out at PTA meetings. I want to be inspired, but some Nashville dickwads who are not at all excited to be working with Michael McDonald are letting their apathy take control of this entire work.
The Caribbeanesque track “Too Short” is five minutes and twenty two seconds long, making it the third shortest track on this seventy-one minute album. I’m feeling every minute. It’s all blending together now. You can put a tropical vibe into a song, but in the world of Michael McDonald’s Wide Open, you can’t escape the blanket easy listening vamp that covers pretty much the entire album, which, again, is long enough to be a feature film.
The final track is called “Free a Man.” Thank you. I’m greeted with a New Jack Swing, for some reason, and the first line, “Say what you will about the gays.” The song proceeds to sound like a blacksploitation soundtrack and has a lot of nice sentiments about equality and tolerance, but this is about all I can tolerate. Thank you for freeing this man.
I wanted to love this album. I wanted a new go-to, where I discover new things about each song everytime I listen to it. I wanted what I know Michael McDonald can give. But we’re living in a world where we should no longer put faith in our heroes. Disappointment and sinking hearts are the themes of 2017, and Michael McDonald’s creative team nails those. Wide Open feels like someone took a giant paint roller, dipped it into the color “Adult Contemporary Michael McDonald” and slathered it all over a tableau vibrant and exciting possibilities.
Next time, I’ll be taking a listen to Michael McDonald’s 2008 collection of soul covers, Soul Speak.