Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Wilco, the new album, prior and beyond

Since I've been following the band, Wilco has always been self-aware. I've never been to a Wilco show where Jeff Tweedy didn't namecheck the band. We have The Wilco Book, The Wilco Store, Wilco toys; and now "Wilco (the Song)" that kicks off Wilco (The Album). Early risers can snag Wilco (The Shirt) with a preorder.

But how could Jeff and the boys not be embrace the hell out of it all? For better of for worse, the Wilco story is the kind of thing that we Americans love; truly, the band's history could not have been more dramatically plotted by a team of Hollywood scribes. Come on, you know the words! Deep breath: They rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo and struggled in the shadows of Son Volt, before releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums, including their flagship effort which was denied by their label, leading to the dissolution of their relationship with said label, and and ensuing release with a different subsidiary label from the same umbrella corporation, followed by the dismissal of core member Jay Bennett, who seemed to be a cornerstone in a famously liquid lineup, and finally the entry of Tweedy into rehab prior to the release of A Ghost Is Born in 2004.

/gasp for air

Since then its been hunky dory. Aside from the tragic passing of Jay Bennett last month, which extinguishes any possibility of a reunion of his and Tweedy's talents, it's been smooth sailing for the indie megastars in recent years. The stability of their lineup (this current sextet is the longest running of any of the band's rosters) has allowed the boys to absorb legions of fans who were attracted by this Wilco lore. And now they're rapidly checking off big-ticket rites of passage: Performances on SNL and The Colbert Report; booking the who's-who of indie acts for openers; themselves opening for the Stones; first pitch duties at Wrigley; rubbing elbows with Obama; Volkswagen campaigns, and the list goes on. It has all the markings of a non-radio band who earned it the hard way. Who could argue they didn't?

But Wilco is not those Rolling Stones they opened for; that is, they aren't a novelty act with a slate of uninspired releases who depend on their own notoriety to get asses in seats. No, Wilco is a viable creative entity; minds still well-respected by the music world. Still, it does seem that as the seas have calmed around the band, gone are the angst and paranoia that characterized Tweedy's output. And this isn't surprising. I think he's fully realized his role as husband, father, and damned happy guy. I should note that I don't believe this has compromised his abilities; not in the slightest. I think the argument that stable minds make shitty music is rubbish. Look at Tom Waits, who is similarly ensconced in wife-and-kids family life and has long separated himself from his vices. The guy has released some of his most compelling work over the past decade (his fourth making music.)

But While Tom Waits draws his brilliance from--how should I put this--being really fucking weird, Jeff's appeal has always been his vulnerability. His tired delivery, his penchant for disturbing imagery and melody, that sort of thing. He always seemed to be the non-rock star; the short, homely everyman who expressed himself through this spectrum that made all his music so goddamn relatable to us confused, Gen-Y and beyond twenty somethings. "It makes no difference to me/if they cry all over overseas/cause it's hot in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside." Staggering, pitiful, and brilliant; Tweedy--and indeed Wilco at their best was absolutely peerless.

When Sky Blue Sky came along in 2007, it was actually the first Wilco album release I was cognizant of, besides 2006's fantastic live 2-discer, Kicking Television. I embraced the band right around the release of A Ghost Is Born in mid to late 2004, but this was the first time I could get giddy for the first listen and the ensuing absorption period. And while it has aged surprisingly well, it has never affected me like its predecessors. While there were some classically Wilcoesque tracks ("You Are My Face," "Side With the Seeds," "Impossible Germany"), I found much of it to be overly simplistic ("What Light," "Either Way"). And, forgive me, but Jeff's ode to domestic drudgery, "Hate It Here," is a surefire skipper for me.

But I counted myself among the satisfied (it was still a top 10 album for me that year), and considered the barebones approach (rather ironically) an experiment for the band. Sure enough, the blogosphere and beyond was all atwitter when Tweedy announced that Wilco's newest effort would be a return to the studio-heavy sound of YHF and AGIB. When an 'advanced copy' was made available to me, I chose not to scrutinize. A simple run-through while making breakfast was all I allowed myself. The next day I played it through again, ironically while engaging in domestic drudgery... It wasn't until recently that I sat down with headphones, and listened through uninterrupted. And here we are.

My initial thought is that Wilco (The Album) is essentially a microcosm of the band. Thoughtful at times, panicked at others; poignant, corny, uplifting, just downright silly. This is not particularly an asset. I don't feel like the album has an overarching theme, although admittedly I haven't picked it apart lyrically quite yet. I think all reviews are inherently unfair to some degree; it's why I don't really do many of them on this site. I've known reviewers to only partially listen to albums before throwing together a full review. And even if they do give it a few spins, a week or a month is hardly enough time with an album, in my opinion, to come to a confident conclusion. So maybe I'll come back later this year with a full-on review; maybe I won't. But for now, some stray thoughts:

  • I was initially deflated when I read that "Wilco (the Song)" would be the opening track. I figured it was a one-off novelty tune for their appearance on Colbert. But it's actually damn good, and it reminds me a bit of Summerteeth opener "Can't Stand It," thanks in no small part to the use of church bells.
  • Tweedy's vocals are, like on Sky Blue Sky, farther forward in the mix sung in a higher register than in his earlier years. I'm not particularly sold on this...I miss the mumbled melancholy of "Ashes of American Flags" and "Via Chicago".
  • "Bull Black Nova" is sinister, repetitive, rough around the edges--all qualities Wilco has used in their favor in the past ("Poor Places," "Spiders (Kidsmoke"). Throw this one in there too, it's a winner.
  • Tweedy's duet with Feist on "You and I" seems like a squandered opportunity to do something really cool with one of the most talented female voices around. Instead they basically went the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crowe route, except because they (Tweedy and Feist) are actually likable musicians, it's actually a pretty enough folk song.
  • Any George Harrison fan will recognize that "You Never Know" owes a lot to Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," a song itself infamous for too closely resembling the Motown song "He's So Fine." But Nels Cline's slide riff is an exact replication of the one from Harrison's hit, which confirms my suspicion that they were paying homage to the classic tune.
  • Overall, Tweedy's lyrical display is much more impressive than that on Sky Blue Sky. Aside from a few bad eggs, a welcomed return to form.
  • "Sonny Feeling" is probably this album's "Hate It Here." It's obnoxiously upbeat in my opinion, and the Hammond organ hits are very irritating. Pat Sansone and Nels Cline, who I would defend to the death normally, both come off as overeager on the album, jockeying for territory all too often.

It may seem like I'm not giving Wilco (The Album) much credit. In truth, I do enjoy the album. Apropos of the title, it's exactly what Wilco has become. Well-manicured, a bit safe, kinda goofy, but certainly not succumbing to any greater mainstream formulas, for the most part. They're still capable of packing a very hearty punch, on par with anyone creating music today. My beef with this record is that it's almost too scattershot. There doesn't seem to be an atmosphere, a musical color scheme that's adhered to throughout. But, as I said, writing it off (or writing it...in?) would be laughably premature at this juncture.

While Wilco is still indomitable in the live arena, it seems as though their prime was that stretch of the Jay Bennett era and on into A Ghost Is Born -- an important inclusion, since it's grounds for the argument that they could deliver without the late genius' masterstroke. And don't forget the Mermaid Avenue albums, which served as further proof (as if it were necessary) of what Wilco was capable of. I hesitate to say that Wilco is in decline; I just have too much faith in their judgment, musical and otherwise. Perhaps it's all a part of Jeff Tweedy's greater vision that his band eases into middle age, nurturing its new broader fanbase with music that is reflective of Tweedy's willingness to finally embrace them. Meanwhile, they don't forget about those of us (and I barely include myself here) who remember the old days. They throw us a bone by slaying live, again and again. And even now, as I ready this for posting, I feel the urge to throw the album on again. Always infectious, those boys from Chicago.

Remember: Wilco will love you, baby.


Matt said...

Some thoughts:

1. Ew. Don't throw the excellent "Bull Back Nova" in with "Kidsmoke." What an insult.

2. Completely agree on the duet track

3. "Hate it Here" definitely merits skipping

As for the album itself, I would have to agree that they have hit a bit of a decline as well. It is my opinion that "A Ghost is Born" is their best album to date. Probably the least accessible, but for me, at least musically, it is the most rewarding (again, minus "Kidsmoke" (I am being a bit too harsh, the song is OK, I just don't like how it spams up live shows (I really don't care to listen to a beat repeated with Tweedy cumming on his guitar sporadically throughout.)))

Continuing, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about hitting middle age. Their music now lacks drama, which I think leads in to the lack of atmosphere on this album. There are hints of it ("Bull Back Nova,") but they are few and far between.

Thinking about it now, I ponder how it seems recently that the albums as a whole seem to lack a flow altogether. Tracks 2-4 I think are spectacular, but at this point (having listened to this about 10 times all the way through,) it does not have the same fluidity that made previous outings that much more enjoyable.

Which leads me to my grade at this point of say, a "B." I don't think more listens are necessarily going to reveal anything profound, but it isn't a bad album. It just isn't great.

Thomas said...

1. I remember picking up on Wilco right around the YHF release. I remember hearing about and reading articles pertaining to said drama. I finally got my hands on a copy and it took me about 30 listens before it finally clicked. After that, I was a fan. Same happened with AGIB. I think it was one of the first times we saw them live when that album finally made sense to me.

2. Check out Feist on the King's of Convenience's "Riot on an Empty Street."

3. Agree with you on "Hate It Here" I think Tweets was listening to Jimmy Soul's "If You Want to be Happy for the Rest of Your Life"

Matt said...

I think one of my favorite collaborations of hers (besides most anything BSS related) has got to be "service bells" with Grizzly Bear.