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In a music industry full of professional knuckleheads, cult heroes, and oracles of alienation, Jeff Tweedy has built a career on being conspicuously ordinary. Even when the sonic surroundings are oddball or intricate, his lyrics reveal average-guy fears and average-guy pains. Like many of us, he’s just a man whose emotional gearbox usually clicks somewhere between “prick” and “sweetheart.”
Is that a comfort zone? Hardly. Confusion and anxiety are always rattling within Tweedy’s music, but he’ll never overanalyze any predicament. He’s more likely to fracture the explanations and descriptions, allowing his downstate Illinois drawl to glue everything together. The rest of Wilco is there to buff it for public consumption—tone is the band’s strong point.
And that tone hasn’t changed much as Wilco’s discs have become more ambitious. Tweedy, trying to shed the burden of his twangy past with the venerated, now-defunct Uncle Tupelo, has led Wilco into a place that is quietly American and invariably indebted to ’60s and ’70s hit radio. There, the percussion is undoctored and crisp, guitars always sound like guitars, and keyboards are treated with both fear and reverence. The arrangements evoke Phil Spector spaciousness or Big Star compression or Replacements looseness. Some songs dissolve into nothingness or flutter into Pet Sounds territory. But whenever Wilco threatens to be weird, the payoff is always something familiar.
And the new Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—despite its widespread reputation as The Mess That Befuddled Reprise Records—isn’t all that weird. It’s a flawed and distant album of gorgeous love songs. No, scratch that. It’s a gorgeous album of flawed and distant love songs. In either case, Wilco sounds perfectly comfortable. And that easy confidence is probably why the record sat on a shelf for more than a year: Tweedy didn’t want anybody telling him how to package his ordinariness.
The album’s pre-release history has become notorious: Wilco, joined in the mixing booth by Jim O’Rourke, an indie-rock fixture in Tweedy’s adopted hometown of Chicago, finished YHF early in the spring of 2001 and delivered it to execs at Reprise, who refused to release it. The band bought back the masters, and, freed of any obligations, put the songs online in a tinny-sounding QuickTime format. After a fall tour, Wilco signed with Nonesuch Records, an AOL Time Warner label that dedicates its dollars to so-called career artists.
There’s some justice in all of it: Reprise is an AOL Time Warner label, too. The media giant essentially paid twice for the record. “I guess we slipped through one of the widening cracks in globalization,” Tweedy told London’s Daily Telegraph in March. Adding to YHF’s legend, filmmaker Sam Jones started shooting a documentary on the band as it went into the studio in early 2001, and the result is the feature-length I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, due for release before the end of the year.
But if the album’s release was difficult, the music is generally not. The only blatant piece of art-wankery on YHF is in the last minute of “Poor Places,” a gentle ditty built on cascading piano lines and Ringo Starr-style drum rolls. Tweedy offers himself as the damaged poet next door, bobbing through verses such as “My jaw’s been broken/My heart is wrapped in ice/My fangs have been pulled/But I really wanna see you tonight.” After the music reaches a semiclimax, a searing howl of feedback trounces the melody, and a disembodied female mission-control voice repeats the title of the disc ad infinitum. If it’s a metaphor about love and communication, it’s overdone. If it’s an attempt at Kubrickian absurdity, it’s all wrong. If it’s a nod to psychedelia, it’s hackneyed. And if it’s self-sabotage, Wilco’s way of forcing some artistic detachment, then the band has an unexpected pompous streak.
Elsewhere, the auditory assaults are limited, even though Wilco and O’Rourke toy with every corner of your headphones. The disc’s obvious instant classic—the string-fortified “Jesus, etc.”—displays perfect restraint. Backed by an Al Green-ish groove and flourishes of mellow keys, Tweedy assumes the blue-eyed-soul role, and he’s damn cool in it. “Tall buildings shake” and “skyscrapers are scraping together” because of “our love,” he says. Any sense that the lyrics are some accidental World Trade Center prophecy is relieved by the song’s pure pop inspiration.
And “Jesus, etc.,” with its pan-Top 40 influences, vaguely recalls the slicked-up Nashville countrypolitan hits of the early ’60s: part Hicksville, part Motown, part Hollywood. For Uncle Tupelo die-hards—especially the ones still hoping for even the briefest Tweedy reunion with downcast ex-partner Jay Farrar—the song should be a mandatory part of the alt-country grieving process. YHF’s elegy for the innocence of the hair-band era, the instantly catchy “Heavy Metal Drummer,” would probably work well, too.
Yet it’s tough to see the varied sounds of YHF as a reaction to Tweedy’s alt-country past. Rather, Wilco is a rock geek’s band—and what do rock geeks do better than collect references? In Tweedy’s case, a lifetime of vinyl grooves and solitary guitar sessions has made him a master of reflection; somewhere along the way, he also lost the ability to play a character. So despite all the extra noise on YHF, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the real Tweedy filters out of every track.
Despite its forward momentum, YHF marks the end of an era for the band. Longtime Wilco drummer Ken Coomer left in January 2001, leaving O’Rourke protege Glenn Kotche to do most of the playing. And guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett departed during the summer, after the disc entered music-biz limbo. Bennett, as much as anybody in the band, was responsible for the classic pop staying power of 1999’s Summerteeth, the disc that demonstrated, once and for all, that Wilco had more in common with the Flaming Lips than with John Mellencamp.
It was on Summerteeth that Tweedy’s dark side first reared its shaggy head. The end of that album’s “She’s a Jar” remains his most chilling moment. After a plaintive harmonica solo, the chorus arches toward resolution, and Tweedy puts himself in the shoes of a blue-collar provider who puzzles out his attraction to the woman he loves. She’s a “sleepy kisser,” he says, adding with deadpan seriousness, “Y’know she begs me not to hit her.” And the song drops into oblivion. It’s a stab in the chest.
Nothing is as brutal on YHF, but the same Tweedy is in effect. The leadoff track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” isn’t mean, but it doesn’t play fair, either. Tweedy dumps a notebook’s worth of lyrical shards into the song, cutting and pasting Whitmanesque oddities (“I wanna hold you in the bible-black pre-dawn”) on top of lameass confessions (“What was I thinkin’ when I said it didn’t hurt”). The wobbly musicianship, the sonic sideswipes (thank O’Rourke for those), and the song’s protracted ending allow Wilco to be prickly, childlike, disorienting, and majestic—sometimes within a span of 10 seconds. So be it.
Tweedy also finds comfort in a dirge. At first, “Radio Cure” drones along with fun-crushing lines such as “Cheer up/Honey I hope you can” and “There is something wrong with me.”
Finger-flicks on a guitar, ominous “A Day in the Life” piano chords, and hissy sound effects eventually succumb to a key change. Then there’s a breakthrough: “Distance has no way of making love understandable,” Tweedy sings, delivering the song’s official piece of wisdom. It’s almost a country song, in the way that David Lynch movies are almost about Los Angeles. CP