At a glance, Empty Through Empty Space, the new album by Jeremy Wilson, has the backstory of a classic breakup record. Guy meets girl, he moves across the country to be with her, things fall apart, he gets in his car and drives home, writing songs in his head along the way. But as the first material he's released in more than a decade, it can't just be about that single experience. It's informed by heart disease as much as heartbreak, by a simmering existential crisis as much as the crash-and-burn of a relationship. To call Empty Space simply a "breakup record" is an oversimplification—"breakdown record" is more like it.
But first: the girl.
âWhen this young woman came into my life, so beautiful and so encouraging, I felt happy for the first time in so long,â says Wilson from his studio in Southeast Portland. At the time, the 45-year-old singer-songwriter, who fronted Pacific Northwest college-rock heroes the Dharma Bums in the late 1980s and major-label hopefuls Pilot in the â90s, was a year removed from the end of his last long-term relationship. A few years earlier, heâd been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a heart condition that required multiple surgeries. Meeting someone new renewed his hope that he could still get married and have kidsâthe things he put off in his 20s and 30s, as he chased other dreams. âAnd I feel like I put all my eggs in one basket,â he says.
So, when she took a job in Florida, Wilson went with her. It only took six months for things to sour. It wasnât a spectacular implosion but a slow dissolve: When he got into his Ford Explorer, opting to drive the 3,600 miles back to Portland, he wasnât sure if it was really over.
By the time he arrived back in town, 10 days later, heâd come to at least one conclusion: He was going to make a record, something he hadnât done since the late â90s. In the intervening years, heâd stayed activeâbuilding a studio, producing bands and, after getting sick, establishing the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit providing musicians with emergency health-care servicesâbut as far as anyone could tell, Wilson had retired as an artist. âYou wouldnât believe how many people come up to me and go, âI didnât know youâre still making music,ââ Wilson says.
But he hadnât stopped. In fact, throughout the early 2000s, heâd worked on and off on what was supposed to be his solo debut, but the recording kept getting interrupted. Wilson knew that if Empty Space was ever going to see daylight, it had to be done quickly. He let the lyrics stream out of him, and called in some friendsâincluding members of the Decemberists and his old Dharma Bums bandmatesâto flesh out the songs. The sound is painterly Americana, with rolling timpani drums conjuring images of a big open sky and a rhythmic pulse representing stretches of passing highway. Wilson refers to it as âepic minimalismâ: The arrangements may be sweeping, but itâs insulated enough to feel like youâre riding shotgun alongside him as he spills his guts all over the dash.
The bloodletting worked: Wilson is in a much better place today. Heâs engaged. Heâs back to being an active artist again. And, he says, heâs a better person. Summing up the last few years, Wilson quotes himself: âThe greatest gift I ever received came from the hardest bargain.â
SEE IT: Jeremy Wilson plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Eyelids and Pete Krebs & His Portland Playboys, on Saturday, March 8. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.