SO IT’S here, and Wilco’s claim that Wilco (The Album) would take a drastic turn back toward studio-engineered songcraft of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot holds about as much water as Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ bombastic pre-leak claims that No Line on the Horizon would top Achtung Baby. Not so. Wilco (The Album) draws from largely the same laid-back, alternative- country, crooner pool from which 2007’s fantastic Sky Blue Sky emerged. This time, the flourishes are just steered down a slightly different reverse path—back toward 1999’s delightful Summerteeth.
Where Being There, the band’s acclaimed 1996 double album, paid tribute to the icons of folk music—notably Bob Dylan, as explicitly laid out on “Someone Else’s Song”—Summerteeth was full of sunny shout-outs to some of the band’s other influences like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Wilco sounded like a band reaching for (and often achieving) a greatness that harkens back to the other musical greats. The melodies played like subtle re-inventions of well established pop traditions, with an added undercurrent of menace and experimentation. Sure, “A Shot in the Arm” starts out with a familiar piano line, but by middle of the song the piece has warped itself into something different, with Tweedy emphatically repeating “maybe all I need is a shot in the arm” over and over again. The song retains an element of prettiness throughout, eventually returning to where it started, but that prettiness is at times increasingly overwhelmed with noise. The Beatles did the same thing on “A Day in the Life,” where pretty music with ominous lyrics gives way to noise, then music again, then more noise.
It’s technically accurate to say that Wilco (The Album) uses the studio as an instrument more than their last, the au naturelSky Blue Sky, but anyone expecting the tinkering experimentation to go as far as it did on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should brace themselves for disappointment. Great skill obviously went into this album’s production—all the subtle nuances of sound that were omitted from Sky Blue Sky are here—but most of it settles for revisiting all the different kinds of “Wilco songs” the band has invented over their career.
“You Never Know,” an unfortunate first single, is the kind of brash, inelegant tune the band occasionally unleashes upon the world, notably resembling Being There’s “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and Summerteeth’s “ELT.” “Country Disappeared” is Tweedy lamenting away, as is common, a lost loved one dying in your arms, or something of that sort. (Includes romantic/violent lines such as “So every evening we can watch from above/Crushed cities like a bug/Fold ourselves into each others guts/Turn our faces up to the sun.”) “You and I” is, if you insist on placing it within the Wilco canon, the kind of lovely Being There duet the band never recorded. It’s also proof that, if a song is lovely enough and novel enough, we could care less if it’s edgy.
“One Wing” is essentially a grand country sing-along, more muscular than anything on Sky Blue Sky, with the entire band chiming in for the chorus: “One wing, will never fly/Neither yours nor mine/We can only wave goodbye.” Glen Kotche’s drumming is front in center, taking command from the moment it enters. Cline’s guitar playing is subtle and satisfying, and Tweedy’s glorious voice cements the song as the most arresting bit of artistry on this record. (Though “Bull Black Nova,” the album’s one attention-grabbing rocker, at least makes a run for the title.)
The problem isn’t that Wilco (The Album) doesn’t experiment enough, the problem is that the songs themselves are less interesting and of less sentimental value than anything else from Wilco’s back-catalog. For a band with such a track record, songs that serve as mild improvements of their past achievments aren’t good enough. Where Sky Blue Sky was a cohesive experiment in writing classic rock, Wilco (The Album) is a mishmash of all the band’s different angles. Frankly, we’ve come to expect more.
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