"If you don't wanna be with me, you don't gotta be with me," Twin Citian Dan Israel sings plaintively on his new release Dan, his 13th studio album of original material. It's the sound of someone finally letting go, after years of holding on to a hope that is quite simply never going to materialize. It's the sound of acceptance, and it's not all "hang-your-head" stuff either - there is liberation here, despite the tears.
In the final verse of "Be With Me," a musically rollicking long-time-coming/shoulda-seen-it-coming break-up song that features Twin Cities chanteuse Katie Gearty on harmony vocals and Paul Odegaard on trumpet, Israel concludes "I'll leave you alone, but alone is what you'll be, you can avert your eyes, but someday you'll realize, all the good things you lost when you lost me." Pop overtones aside, these aren't bubblegum lyrics. This is a real person coming clean and setting himself free, finally. "You Don't Love Me Anymore" is a radio-ready tune of romance-gone-wrong featuring Adam Levy (Honeydogs) on guitar and Bethany Larson on vocals. Other notable special guests such as Dave Boquist (Son Volt), Dan Neale, Andra Suchy, Jenny Russ, Clay Willams, Rich Mattson (Glenrustles, Ol' Yeller), and Peter J. Sands join the core band (David J. Russ on drums, Mike Lane on bass, and James Tyler O'Neill on keys) in making Israel's lucky/unlucky record #13 soar above the pain, with basic tracks recorded at Mattson's Sparta Sound on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota and overdubs laid down at Russ's It's a Secret studios in Minneapolis.
Dan Israel has never been for the faint of heart. While his tunes overflow with hooks, his lyrics are often downcast to the point of being downright depressing, and his cantankerous, get-off-my-lawn nature gives new meaning to the term "old soul." "Old soul" nothing - sometimes Dan Israel just sounds like a grumpy old man. But then you dig a little deeper, and there's sunshine poking through the gray skies. Here he is on "Two Bright Stars," celebrating his resilient children and their ability to withstand and blossom despite the heartbreak of their parents' divorce: "Two bright stars are glowing, where our love used to be, casting light in the shadows, where it seemed so empty, though we just couldn't make it, living proof shows the scars, despite all of the darkness, there remain two bright stars."
"Winning at Solitaire" bounces along like a great, lost Traveling Wilburys track, while "Winter is Coming" looks forward, apprehensively, to that most dreaded of seasons in the Upper Midwest, concluding with Israel telling himself that it's finally time to "make your peace with the change." From the shimmering, 12-string electric-guitar jangle-pop of "Lonely Too" to the Neil Young-like crunch-rock of "Can't Believe It," the sonic surprises amidst the emotional troughs keep the listener engaged from start to finish; Dan is Dan Israel at his best, and it's his most honest and rewarding record yet.
He's been making albums and playing live shows for well over two decades. The accolades and awards speak for themselves: 2006 Minnesota Music Awards Songwriter of the Year; named one of Austin's top 15 songwriters in the 1995 Austin Chronicle music poll; City Pages' 2005 Best Acoustic Performer; first-ever guest on 89.3 The Current's Local Show; 4-star review (for 2007's Turning) in the U.K.'s Uncut magazine; and glowing reviews in No Depression, Paste, and Performing Songwriter. Local critics have called him a "legend" and "the hardest working singer-songwriter in Minnesota." In his 4-star St. Paul Pioneer Press review of Israel's 2000 release Dan Who?, Jim Walsh concluded "Well, somebody buy a billboard, hire a blimp, and give this guy his due already. His name is Dan Israel, one of the mad ones, one of the strugglers, and he just made the record of his life."
Dan Israel has been around - he's showcased multiple times at SXSW and has opened for or shared bills with artists as diverse as Morrissey, Loudon Wainwright III, the Tragically Hip, Iris Dement, the Rev. Horton Heat, Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, Mason Jennings, Chris Koza, Kevin Costner, Yael Naim, Todd Snider, the Gear Daddies, Trampled by Turtles, Charlie Parr, Peter Himmelman, Soul Asylum, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Blue Oyster Cult, Rick Springfield, Spoon, Mary Lou Lord, Dwight Twilley, Foghat, Joe Ely, and Paula Cole.
With critics singing his praises, and frequent comparisons drawn to successful artists like Tom Petty and Wilco, along with cult favorites like Randy Newman, the Jayhawks, Paul Westerberg, and Freedy Johnston, sometimes you can't help but wonder where and when Dan Israel's musical ship will come in. He's certainly written his share of shoulda-been hits, many of which were included in his fan-funded 2013 "best of" 2-LP vinyl compilation Danthology.
But does any of that matter? Not really. Because Dan Israel, on his 13th album Dan, has done something actually rather extraordinary in this age of artifice and overly self-conscious pretension - he has simply told it like it is. And you can sing along to it too. Yes, it's a "divorce album," there's no getting away from that, but it's also about picking up the pieces from such a status-quo-shattering event and moving forward in the direction of something better. Lucky or not, maybe the 13th time really is the charm for Dan Israel.