Certain records create a space where memory -- not nostalgia -- makes us long for something that’s been missing. Eight years after the stellar Sleepless, Peter Wolf offers us that with Midnight Souvenirs. Few artists can make records where tautly crafted songs with solid lyrics, balanced production, and inspired performances are the only priorities. The album’s musical traces go all the way back to his past as a DJ, as a member of the Hallucinations and the J. Geils Band to his solo career and the present moment in terrific voice. Wolf and collaborators (most notably writing partner Will Jennings and co-producer Kenny Brown) deliver adult rock & roll songs. The tunes are direct, poignant, and confessional, buoyed by Wolf’s trademark sense of humor. It engages roots rock, R&B, Americana, and yes, blues, played by an all-star band that includes guitarists Larry Campbell and Duke Levine, and the best female backing chorus in the business: Ada Dyer and Catherine Russell.
There isn’t a weak cut here, but there are highlights. There are three excellent duets. The first is the soul-drenched country of “Tragedy” with Shelby Lynne, (co-written by Angelo Petraglia). “Tragedy” details the failings of a man in love and his desperate unwillingness to accept that this may be the end. Lynne’s a perfect foil, underscoring Wolf’s pleading with pure Southern soul singing; she's empathic but defiant. It’s a sad song but horns, Stax-style guitar, B-3, and a rhythm section create an infectious groove. “Green Fields of Summer” with Neko Case is inspired by a traditional melody that could have been sung by Fairport Convention. The set closer with Merle Haggard (in amazing voice here), melds the pair in a country waltz that sums up the regret that stands monolithically in the hearts of those who've failed.
Wolf rocks here too: “I Don’t Wanna Know,” with its big ringing guitars and wailing harmonica, is a betrayal song to dance to. “Watch Her Move” is a snaky, nocturnal old-school R&B tune that shakes in modern parlance. “There’s Still Time” is the album’s hinge piece. Slowly beginning with acoustic and electric guitars, it gradually soars, adding a string section and a gospel-ized backing chorus. Wolf declares his self-aware protagonist’s isolated way of living, the cost he’s willingly paid for it, and his decision to abandon himself fearlessly to whatever he encounters because that’s what actual living requires. ”Thick as Thieves” is a scorching electric blues number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a North Mississippi Allstars record. “Overnight Lows” is a humorous, soul morality tale where the singer wears his heart -- and faults --on his sleeve. “The Night Comes Down (For Willy DeVille)" is a big rock anthem delivered in an intimate way. Midnight Souvenirs is a terrific dark-night-of-the-soul album, but it doesn’t mope. It’s made for driving, dancing alone in the living room, or merely pondering your next move, while snapping your fingers, of course.