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Fifteen years of not giving people what they want has, strangely enough, paid off quite well for Wilco.
Over the years, the Chicago sextet has furrowed the brows of its dad-rock fans with atonal guitar solos and spurned its alt-country devotees with headache-inducing drones. But for every person who’s walked out of a Wilco concert howling “Judas,” at the stage, two new people have run in the door.
So why stop alienating people now?
Wilco, it often seems, is never the same band twice. But on Wilco (The Album), instead of flipping the bird at expectations again, the band glances backward for the first time and looks at the clichés it helped establish. On album-opener “Wilco (The Song),” singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy uses the chorus to lay out his new, less confrontational, MO: “Wilco will love you, baby.”
It could be argued that each new Wilco record generates a wave of nostalgia for the Wilco record immediately prior.
When the group released 2001’s noisy and densely layered Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, critics swooned but hardcore followers threw their hands in the air and declared 1999’s power-pop saturated Summerteeth to be the close of a golden era. When Wilco made Summerteeth, fans groused and moaned, yearning for another roots-rock album in the style of 1996’s Being There. And when the group’s first record, 1995’s AM, debuted—before there was even a prior Wilco album to fawn over—people just targeted their wistfulness toward Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy’s defunct alt-country band.
But Wilco (The Album) goes one better; it causes pangs of nostalgia for every previous Wilco album. And it does so by design.
In a couple of different interviews, Tweedy has called Wilco (The Album) a “Whitman’s Sampler of the different aspects and obsessions of Wilco.” Apparently, this includes Wilco’s affinity for overarching themes. “It’s impossible to generate something without also generating a conceptual receptacle sturdy enough to hold it—creating a big shape to put the little shapes in,” wrote Tweedy in the band’s self-authored textbook, The Wilco Book. “On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the big shape was America.” On Wilco (The Album) it’s Wilco.
So it’s interesting to examine the aspects of the historical Wilco that the contemporary Wilco, now in its umpteenth lineup, wants to keep around. Well, the guitar solo, for starters. Blues-informed licks peppered the band’s first few records, but starting with 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, Wilco became more and more interested in intricately choreographed fretwork inspired by bands like Television and, to a lesser extent, Sonic Youth. Wilco (The Album) is riddled with them. But rather than allow them to dominate large swaths of music, like on A Ghost Is Born’s epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” the band neatly tucks them between verses or only lets them explode as a song is fading out. Guitarist Nels Cline gets a few great moments on “One Wing,” pushing the song from mid-tempo rock to a heated climax.
The whole studio-as-instrument thing gets to stick around, too. There’s nothing quite as heavy-duty as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s coarse sound collages, or even Summerteeth’s layered synthesizer gumbo here, but Wilco (The Album) does bring back some of the gurgling textures that were largely abandoned on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. “Deeper Down” jumps between atmospheres as quickly as the verses change, punctuating Tweedy’s lyrics with underwater sounds, baroque dulcimers, and an array of percussion.
There are other, relatively minor, nods to the past as well: drummer Glen Kotche supplies some krautrock grooves, “Wilco (The Song)” brings back those tubular bells that worked so well in the past, and for the first time since AM, a vocalist other than Tweedy gets some prominent time behind the mic (singer Leslie Feist, during the duet “You and I”). Best of all, after two records of relative calm, Tweedy finally lets loose and yells a little bit. When it comes to full-throated bloody hollering, Tweedy’s greatly underrecognized. During the last few bars of “Bull Black Nova,” he gets the most swept up he’s been since Being There’s “Misunderstood.”
But these are all, for the most part, superficial things. Tweedy’s songwriting has been the driving force in Wilco, and even before the noise, the sonic trickery, or the guitar solos, he was already pushing the band into unfamiliar territory with his lyrics alone. The last couple of lines of Summerteeth’s “She’s a Jar” (“My pop quiz kid a sleepy kisser/A pretty war with feelings hid/You know she begs me not to hit her”) were enough to predict that the band was not long for the world of sunny alt-rock hitmaking. Shock value aside, Tweedy had a knack for using strange and abstract imagery to frame ordinary suffering.
He gets in a few lines on Wilco (The Album) that rank with some of his best—most notably on the haywire-murder ballad “Bull Black Nova” and “Country Disappeared,” which explores the disillusionment of the Bush era without sounding shrill. “You’ve got the white clouds hanging so high above you/You’ve got the helicopters dangling, angling to shoot,” sings Tweedy on the latter.
Of course, not everything that is part of the history of Wilco is represented on the new album. Mainly, the elements most evocative of late guitarist-songwriter Jay Bennett—who parted ways with the band in 2001 and died in June—are absent. His sense for arrangements and sudden key changes along with his more traditional pop sensibility—which defined the old Wilco—are largely absent here.
Then again, it’s wrong to characterize this band, which has at this point been in existence longer than the Bennett lineup, as “the new Wilco.” Wilco has plenty of space to look back at itself without taking the ’90s into consideration. At this point, the people making Wilco (The Album) constitute the definitive Wilco—even if it’s a little hard to pin down what that means.