Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Deeper In: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- On the Album

Looking at the albums that preceded YHF, the stylistic gaps seem interplanetary, but that's not to say there isn't a traceable thread of progression. A.M. is Tupelo lite: Some above-average, charming, chicken-fried alt-rock that didn't tell us any more than we already knew about Jeff Tweedy's songwriting (except, perhaps, for the contemplative lap-steel/acoustic duet "Dash 7" which is a bellwether of songs like "Sunken Treasure" and "Ashes of American Flags" whose lyrics go a long way in creating the song's atmosphere.)

Wilco found its legs with Being There, their sophomore two-discer that was the ambitious move the band needed to make; not to keep up with Jay Farrar's Son Volt, but rather to escape its shadow, to carve their own path. While the songwriting wasn't radically different from that of A.M., there were two major distinctions: First, Jeff Tweedy's lyrical approach was much more sophisticated and depended more on imagery and extended analogies than ever before. The second difference was the addition of Jay Bennett to the band's line-up. His unique approach to arrangements was apparent on disc openers "Misunderstood" and "Sunken Treasure", the two earliest examples of "Wilco Noise" (feedback, general chaos) that would reprise itself on ensuing efforts.

Then came Summerteeth, the marked the apex of the Tweedy/Bennett collaborative era. Wilco's metamorphosis from a late-stage Tupelo was complete. This was an indie-pop album, shining from its thick lacquer of keyboards and studio effects. According to Greg Kot's fantastic book Learning to Die, Bennett and Tweedy made this record in isolation, and only brought in the other members late in the game for final touches.

Wilco's sound was expanding and energized, and all signs pointed to the next LP building on that grand vivacity. And yet, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is markedly restrained. It is an album of, as Jeff Tweedy mumbles during that tremendously uncomfortable meet-and-greet scene in the documentary, "holes." What Jeff means is anyone's guess--but I imagine he's referring to the scant arrangements on songs like "Poor Places" and "Radio Cure". This stripped-down approach was largely the result of avante-garde musician/producer Jim O'Rourke's involvement in mixing the record. Makes you wonder if he had something to do with that minimalist cover art too.

I interpret YHF not as if it's autobiographical, but rather as if it follows a single character Jeff Tweedy created for the purpose of projecting a greater theme. I hear each song from the perspective of this character, cataloging both his most complex and simple reflections of the world around him. I see him as a young man trapped in postmodern middle America, whose personal issues are magnified by his disenchanted view of the country. It's not anti-Patriotic, but rather a tacit acceptance of the gloomy state of the nation. It's no surprise that this album was so resonant with the 20-something fringe.

The album's progression is a thing to behold. Its immaculate sequencing guides the listener along cinematically, each song like a different scene, with sonic suggestions of lighting, mood, flashback, etc. The songs run a sinuous gamut of emotions, from pensive aggression to depression to brief spells of affection and nostalgia. The climactic breakdown of "Poor Places" filters brilliantly into the post-Apocalytpic assent of "Reservations", wherein he declares, "I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you." And there lies what I believe is Tweedy's conclusion.

But let's start at the beginning. The first sounds we hear are a cacophony of bells, clocks, and drum rolls over the faint coo of a synthesizer. It all suggests the ambiance of that twice-mentioned "big city blinking". The song's lyrics are curious, cryptic, but one gets the sense of an unhealthy on-and-off relationship, in which the character continually asks "What was I thinking?" before admitting, "I am trying to break your heart." The piano, which up to that point in the song had played with accidental notes and flittered through the scales, finally collects into strong, pounding chords for a cathartic bridge that seems like the album's title should be flashing onscreen. General sonic chaos ensues, including a curious call-ahead to "I'm The Man That Loves You."

"Kamera" is a neatly-packaged affair with its tight rhythm and no-nonsense pace, and lyrically it continues the theme of big city confusion when our narrator concedes he's "lost on the sidewalk". We also hear the first mention of war and family, two themes that regularly interweave throughout the course of the album. It's also a perfect example of O'Rourke's influence on the album. Its hurried tempo could have easily fallen victim to musical oversaturation. And it almost did: a few demos/alternate takes present the song as an overdriven noise rock anthem, with Tweedy straining to yelp vocals over the chugging guitars. But the song's restraint is its best quality, and yet it still lends the album some vitality early on.

If there's one Yankee Hotel Foxtrot song most casual listeners take issue with, it's "Radio Cure". And to be fair, it's anything but accessible. But it's a brilliantly constructed song and an exercise in tension-building. All its unorthodox qualities--the eerie pulse, the clucking banjo flares, the post-lobotomy vocal delivery--provide such a jarring contrast to the chorus, especially that final refrain when Tweedy's vocals rise above the noise to underscore the pained lyric, "distance has no way of making love understandable." This might be the conclusion of the character's escape to the big city (as referenced in the opening track). His attempts to distance himself from the source of his emotional turmoil have only proved that harbored feelings will travel.

Also of note in "Radio Cure" is the continued musical theme of wandering outside a song's key, arriving at notes or chords that provide jarring contrast and make the song seem just a tad off-kilter (which, judging from all the other musical decisions in play, seems to be the goal.) During the chorus, the band reaches across keys and injects a chord that's alien to the song. This theme is repeated in "Poor Places", which brilliantly crystallizes its ominous outro sequence. Songwriters take note: An unexpectedly off-key chord is a good way to smack the listener's brain around a bit.

The scope of YHF swivels outward at this point, as "War on War" snatches the baton and provides another tempo upswing that perpetuates the album's run of contrasting tempos and song-styles while maintaining a unifying aesthetic thread throughout. "War on War" speaks of the cyclical and paradoxical nature of conflict, as well as the theme of submission that surfaces a few times in the album. The lyric "You have to learn how to die, if you wanna, wanna be alive" suggests that war is inevitable, and accepting it is the only real solution. The song may be a metaphor, but it's certainly appropriate vis-a-vis the nation at war to which the album would be released.

"Jesus, Etc." is, next to "Heavy Metal Drummer", the most digestible track on the album. Originally entitled "Jesus, Don't Cry", its title was the result of the lazy labeling of a demo-tape, and the name stuck. The song is sweet and nihilistic--another recurring theme that gives weight to that final, conclusive line of "Reversations" to which I referred to earlier. "Jesus Etc." is a cautiously groovy love song, a thicket of violins interweaving over a soft electric piano and--what's that I hear? A lap steel guitar? You'd think Wilco was a country band at some point...

Despite its fatalistic lyrics ("everyone is a burning sun"), there is an uplifting feel to the song, and it serves as another fascinating glimpse into this character's mindframe--one to which we can all relate. No mental state is static. Every human being, no matter his general outlook on life, has moods and whims. "Radio Cure" and "Jesus, Etc." are creations of the same hand, after all.

"Ashes of American Flags" is one of the album's greatest accomplishments. It's a candid and even heartbreaking lyrical display, with the chorus of "All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new" surely eliciting some sort of aching pity in any listener. That theme of acceptance and submission flares anew in the song, especially in the second verse, when the character dismisses poetry (and perhaps by extension art) for passive consumerism. Since "nobody gives a fuck" about poetry, might as well just buy soda and cigarettes and call it a day, right? The drumwork on "Ashes" is especially poignant, and it's something that latter-era Wilco does so well. Glenn Kotche's concern with actively texturing the song as opposed to providing a backtrack went a long way in taking Wilco to that next artistic wrung. It should be noted, however, that Jay Bennett wrote and provided a good bit of the percussion work for the album. Between the two of them, I'd consider Yankee Hotel one of the most fascinating examples of drumwork on a rock album (though that term is of course used loosely here.) The song, which surely indicates the album's midpoint, is punctuated by a chaotic swirl of feedback and samples, which could represent some sort of breakdown or panic attack. This wouldn't be a stretch for two reasons: First, the nature of the song lends itself nicely to such a display. Secondly, the band would later dedicate a 10+ minute stretch of noise on A Ghost Is Born in an attempt to musically illustrate the intense migraines Tweedy has long suffered. Contextually, it makes sense that the sounds we hear aren't strictly arbitrary, but rather representational.

Earlier, I cited nostalgia as one of the emotions present on the album, and the purest example of that is "Heavy Metal Drummer". It's almost tragic that the most unarguably joyous track on YHF is just our character reminiscing about better days. I love the contrast of sound and lyrics here; it's as if the electronic run between verses is a taunt at the character who longs for the days of brash 80s metal. Yet those times are gone, and now he must rely on high-volume classical music to "mask the ringing in (his) ears".

As if inspired by his memories, we hear a great deal of confidence in "I'm The Man Who Loves You", a thumping mid-tempo romp equal parts noise-rock and soul. The lyrics are lighthearted, image-heavy (I particularly love the opening lines dedicated to describing a piece of ruled paper), and again conjure the theme of acceptance we've seen several times, albeit in a more positive manner. The lyric, "It makes no difference ever known to me" after the description of "a busy sea of spinning wheels" is kind of like saying "It's a crazy world out there, but none of it matters because I love you." The guitar interplay on the song is choppy and frantic, bolstered by some wiry slide guitar and chunky horn section. It remains one of Wilco's finer live servings, and contextually, it's the album's character with his head lifted as high as he can manage.

After "I'm The Man" fizzles out, we reach YHF's most underrated song, "Pot Kettle Black." Here the album dims after two distinctively upbeat songs. "Pot Kettle Black" is a little more serious, similar to "War on War" but more anxious and anticipatory. The lyrics are about as introspective as any song on the album, with the character confronting his own issues. I think we actually see more of Jeff Tweedy shining through on this song, since much of it seems vaguely autobiographical. The lyric, "I myself have found a real rival in myself," could refer to his unwillingness to acquiesce to his label's expectations. In the context of the album, it's a tone-setter for its successor...

Some chirping noises and radio static flicker to life as "Poor Places" begins. It's the album's crown jewel, yet at the same time it's a fractured pop song from a mind about to unravel. It's a brilliant employment of the much maligned I-V-vi-IV chord progression, which you can read about here. But it's executed so well, all behind a vocal melody that's a bit crazed and lyrics that are self-deprecating and bizarre, while framed by quaint recollections of personal minutia like his father's voice and a bow in his backyard. It's hard not to feel sympathetic when he sings "My fangs have been pulled, and I really want to see you tonight." This reads as an admission of defeat; he's neutralized, innocuous and at the same time defenseless. And all he wants is the comfort of the person for whom he longs. It's sad and pitiful, and you get the sense he's struggling to hold it together. The song's lyrics integrate every theme and emotion we've heard yet: disenchantment, nostalgia, longing, nihilism. But most importantly, dour acceptance.

After the third verse, however, the music changes course, grows increasingly inclement, and we hear the character's true outlook, his assessment of everything that's led up to this point:
"And it makes no difference to me,
if they cry all over overseas,
because it's hot in the poor places tonight
I'm not going outside."
With this declaration, he's has allowed himself to be crushed into his own poor place by his mental burdens, and he's thrown his hands up to problems outside his own. He's drawn his curtains and given up on the world, the struggles abroad, and everything else. It equates to a loss of faith in his own spirit. As the piano plays its ominous refrain behind that cold, robotic voice reciting the album's title, the music is swallowed by cyclones of distorted feedback. This is the album's climax; mental anarchy manifested by tidal waves of noise and indecipherable codes. And all the character can do is wait out the storm.

The feedback subsides, and some rushing electronics and solemn piano chords initiate the final movement, a seven minute dénouement. "Reservations" is the epitome of an album-closing song: It resolves the disc thematically, it musically creates the feel of a closing sequence complete with a minutes-long instrumental coda. Tweedy's aching delivery and lyrics are the perfect culmination of the heavily emotional masterpiece. The two most important lyrics of the song (and, perhaps, the album) are its first and last lines:
"How can I convince you it's me I don't like
and not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes?"
Perhaps this is a roundabout way of approaching the "It's not you, it's me" angle, but I think there's another element to it, as evidenced by the closing lyric:
"I've got reservations, about so many things, but not about you."
We all project our problems...and we often reposition them mentally, so as not to undermine ourselves. We place the blame on others to alleviate our own guilt. But Tweedy's character has deciphered this equation as to why, exactly, he is trying to break someone's heart--and recognizes that the answer is twofold: One must be aware of this tendency and--rather than seek to include others in existing turmoil--one must use others as a means of escape. And this is why I maintain that, above all, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's message doesn't lie in the foreboding "Poor Places". Like any great book, film and--yes--album, all the elements of Wilco's masterpiece collect into one resounding message: Simply enough, finding peace and optimism through others.

No comments: