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.

“When this young woman came into my life, so beautiful and so encouraging, I felt happy for the first time in so long,” 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 ’90s, was a year removed from the end of his last long-term relationship. A few years earlier, he’d 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 kids—the things he put off in his 20s and 30s, as he chased other dreams. “And I feel like I put all my eggs in one basket,” he says.

So, when she took a job in Florida, Wilson went with her. It only took six months for things to sour.  It wasn’t 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 wasn’t sure if it was really over.

By the time he arrived back in town, 10 days later, he’d come to at least one conclusion: He was going to make a record, something he hadn’t done since the late ’90s. In the intervening years, he’d stayed active—building a studio, producing bands and, after getting sick, establishing the Jeremy Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit providing musicians with emergency health-care services—but as far as anyone could tell, Wilson had retired as an artist. “You wouldn’t believe how many people come up to me and go, ‘I didn’t know you’re still making music,’” Wilson says.

But he hadn’t stopped. In fact, throughout the early 2000s, he’d 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 friends—including members of the Decemberists and his old Dharma Bums bandmates—to 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 “epic minimalism”: The arrangements may be sweeping, but it’s insulated enough to feel like you’re riding shotgun alongside him as he spills his guts all over the dash. 

The bloodletting worked: Wilson is in a much better place today. He’s engaged. He’s back to being an active artist again. And, he says,  he’s a better person. Summing up the last few years, Wilson quotes himself: “The greatest gift I ever received came from the hardest bargain.”

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+.