City of Wood continues to set hairs on end twenty-five years after its release.
As a solo musician, composer, and producer, Bob Wiseman has been consistently productive, whether writing and recording his own music or as a featured performer on the work of others. While always prolific, the multi-instrumentalist Wiseman was never as prophetic as he was on his striking and arresting 1993 album, City of Wood. Striking in the stark and sharply focused playing on much of the record’s twelve tracks, and arresting in Wiseman’s acute lyrics: angered, acidic, and emotionally vulnerable. Twenty-five years on, many of the issues and concerns that galvanized Wiseman on City of Wood continue to make headlines and spur heated conversations: senseless mass murders, indigenous rights, violence and sexual assault against women, global imbalance of wealth, and the idea that history and truth are pliable and subject to reinterpretation in order to serve personal agendas.
City of Wood was Wiseman’s first solo record after leaving Blue Rodeo, and though it continues in the same pointed political vein of earlier records, it doesn’t rely on any of the pretences that marked Sings Wrench Tuttle: In Her Dream and Presented by Lake Michigan Soda. On the former, Wiseman claims that the titular Tuttle, a pen pal “poet, traveller, activist and philosopher” whom he never met, wrote the poems that form all the album’s lyrics. On the latter, Wiseman’s idiosyncratic melodies and scathing lyrics are presented courtesy of the imagined beverage brand that he exclusively drinks while trying to write music. City of Wood relies solely on the strength of Wiseman’s songwriting and moral convictions.
Starting with “Fourteen Empty Chairs”, the painting by Mendelson Joe featured on the cover that commemorates the 1989 murder of fourteen women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, through to the penultimate title track that acerbically takes on rape culture and male privilege by holding nothing back, City of Wood wallops the listener at every turn. “For Joseph K.” is a touching, loving lament for a lost friend set to mournful string accompaniment; “White Dress” is as stark as it’s title image, with just piano and bass punctuating Wiseman’s poetic imagery. “Have A Nice Day” calls out lawyer-for-Nazi-war-criminals Doug Christie, the one time head of the separatist Western Canada Concept Party and continues to resonate in our modern time of “alternative facts” and alt-right propaganda proliferation.
The record likely scared the beejezus out of WEA, Wiseman’s label at the time, who criminally under-promoted it and quickly severed ties with the artist once contractual obligations were met. Their loss. City of Wood’s potency isn’t diminished by time; listening to it in its twenty-fifth anniversary year continues to set hairs on end (as “In Spite of the Danger” documents a senseless overdose death), and force tears to well up (as they inevitably do listening to the Wiseman’s anti-Semitic recollections on “How Round the Earth”). At turns jazzy, folky, rocking, and haunting, Bob Wiseman’s City of Wood is a powerfully executed, poetically beautiful protest record.