Practically from the moment that Jeff Tweedy murmured the words “I am an American aquarium drinker,” the opening lyric of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that re-imagined what a rock album could be, Wilco has enjoyed a position of high prominence in the panoply of American bands. Yankee was rightly hailed as a masterpiece. That first, seven-minute track, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” is defined by shimmering instrumentals, a lovely, lurching drum signature, and Tweedy’s smug-but-vulnerable, slurry vocals. For all their windy nuance, Tweedy’s words have a sly-sensitive, penetrating observational clarity, like the ramblings of a heartbroken anthropologist on his sixth beer.
This clarity is a hallmark of Tweedy’s songwriting, where imagery is always being melded to emotion. The emotional content in Yankee moves from crankiness to near-suicidal despair, to sentimentality, to a strident refusal to accept an American culture in atrophy. “You have to lose,” he sings in “War on War,” a driving mid-tempo rock song that is somehow both aggressive and subdued. “You have to learn how to die.”
About six weeks ago, Tweedy’s primary collaborator on Yankee, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, did die, of an accidental drug overdose. His death came as Wilco was getting set to release its latest effort Wilco (The Album). Bennett was booted from the band right after it completed work on Yankee. The conflict between Tweedy and Bennett is plain to see in Sam Jones’s excellent documentary about the making of Yankee, also entitled I am Trying to Break Your Heart. Bennett’s death coming shortly before the release of Wilco’s new record is a coincidence, but it does reinforce some of the ideas that Tweedy has always been preoccupied with as a songwriter, and sought to communicate. How does one even begin to go about living in this world? Such is the precious agony of time.
Wilco (The Album) attempts to answer that question in as straightforward a manner as a rock band can: the band will be, as Tweedy proclaims in the first track, “A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.” The song, “Wilco,” is upbeat, self-reverential, and great. “Are times getting tough? / Are the roads you travel rough? / Have you had enough of the old? / Tired of being exposed to the cold?” Tweedy stacks up the interrogatives like blocks before knocking them over: “Stare at your stereo / Put on your headphones before you explode / Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you baby.” It’s a funny sort of braggadocio that is somehow more heartfelt than solipsistic. Seven years on from the brilliant, narcotized dysphoria of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy seems to have arrived at a place where he is willing to not try and do too much – and maybe not reach quite as far – but the results are still rewarding for the listener. Also, as another critic pointed out, the song does have an oddly Velvet Underground feel, which becomes an ironic theme of Wilco (the Album), its very title such an on-the-nose stamp of individuality: some of the songs consciously reference songs that have come before.
I should pause here to talk a bit about Wilco the band. The collection of musicians has changed and expanded over the years. The holdovers from the Yankee days are bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche. Stirratt is great, but, as a drummer myself, I must take a moment to give Kotche his due. He may be the most tasteful drummer out there, possessing great instincts for both density and space, and the odd quality of power in restraint. Unfortunately, the drum parts on Wilco (the Album) don’t always showcase his ability (and I also felt that especially on later tracks they are recorded in a sort of heavy way that I didn’t especially dig), but if you doubt my assessment of Kotche’s virtuosity, pick up Yankee and give the drums a good listen. You’ll see what I mean.
The lineup is rounded out by keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgenson, and guitarist Nels Cline. Cline is stalwart. He got his first opportunity to really stretch out in 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, the follow-up to Yankee and an excellent album in its own right (See comment below for correction–Jim O’Rourke played lead guitar on Ghost.) The two talented multi-instrumentalists in the band round out the sonic palette nicely, but an essential ingredient to both Wilco’s mastery of the straight-no-chaser rock form and its ability to be experimental is Cline’s guitar playing.
If Ghost was more of a driving rock record, then 2007’s Sky Blue Sky was more contemplative and more musically experimental. The album contained the seeds of the kinder, gentler Jeff Tweedy that is in evidence on Wilco (The Album).
For this latest record, Tweedy seems ready to accentuate the positive, even if that old bleak outlook does occasionally cloud over the proceedings. “Deeper Down” showcases some pretty work from Cline on the pedal steel guitar, and the surprising and playful surge of a harpsichord, played by Sansone. “One Wing” is a ballad centered on a delicate guitar lick and a characteristically spacious and imaginative drum part from Kotche. “You were a blessing, and I was a curse / I did my best not to make things worse / for you,” sings Tweedy. So the old angst isn’t entirely gone. “Bull Black Nova” gets us back into the warm lap of mid-tempo rock, with nice interlocking guitar lines followed by a quirky call-and-response instrumental layout that seems to involve the whole band in successive bursts. It’s a song about a car — with blood all over the trunk. One thing I always enjoy when listening to Wilco is how much power they can conjure in their sound without being heavy-handed in terms of volume and dynamics. The instruments are balanced and play off one another. It’s cleverly orchestrated music with the right rough touches. For “You and I,” the mood shifts to acoustic, and Tweedy shares the vocals with Leslie Feist. It’s a solid song, if a bit twee for me.
The most intriguing oddity on Wilco (The Album) is track six, “You Never Know.” It’s the most referential song of the bunch, borrowing almost exactly from Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” for its foundation groove. It’s Sansone and Jorgenson’s time to bring it, with a dense, pulsing fusillade of piano and Hammond organ, and Kotche leans into the groove. Incorporated into the guitar solo and final choruses is a note-for-note reproduction of George Harrison’s descending guitar lick from “My Sweet Lord.” Of all the songs on the album, this one is growing on me the fastest. “All you fat followers get fit fast / Every generation thinks it’s the last / Thinks it’s the end of the world,” Tweedy chides. “I don’t care anymore, I don’t care anymore / You never know.”
Wilco (The Album) is a good record from a great band. If it doesn’t quite finish as well as it starts, well, that’s okay. The back end of the album is more a tribute to the band’s pre-Yankee, Uncle Tupelo roots – some down-home-sounding, catchy numbers. It concludes with an anthemic, almost schmaltzy love song, “Everlasting Everything,” that’s a bit overwrought. But there’s so much to chew over on this record. As always, the band sounds lush and lithe, and the words and music exist in a rare harmony.
In the end, a record that at first blush seems oddly self-centered is mostly outward-pointing. When Tweedy proclaims that “Wilco will love you baby,” the effect is suitably seductive.