Ladders are sometimes easy symbols for the arc of a band’s career, but for Wilco the metaphor fits like a glove. From the underdog country-rock of A.M. through the ambitious, myth-building Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco (and their ever-evolving line-up) was clearly a band on the way up. Being There and Summerteeth, the albums in between those two, found the band confounding the expectations of both critics and their sometimes overly pos(ob)sessive alt. country fan base. Each of those early albums only hinted though at the heights that would be reached on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the career highlight perched at the top of that proverbial ladder. YHF is the band’s infallible manifesto - a stunning mix of Jeff Tweedy’s avant-garde folk songs with abrasive studio experimentation that works as both a forward-thinking artistic statement and an audacious rock and roll record.
Since then Wilco has gradually come back down to Earth. The weary, drug-addled A Ghost Is Born didn’t show signs of a fading muse on Tweedy’s part, but the many questionable production and arrangement choices detracted from an otherwise strong set of songs. All signs suggested that Wilco was poised to return to top form after Tweedy cleaned himself up and recruited the gifted Nels Cline and Pat Sansone into the band. But those expecting another brave new world had to settle for Sky Blue Sky’s familiar folk rock leanings. Though the album attempted to combine the straightforward song craft of their early days with the accomplished musicianship of their best line-up, it sounded more like a big step backwards. After pushing boundaries and carefully avoiding tags for most of their career, Wilco had released an album that often came within inches of being pegged as “soft rock”.
Which brings us to now. Though a marginally better record (thereby dismissing the ladder metaphor, dang it), Wilco (the Album) picks up pretty much where Sky Blue Sky left off. It’s the first album since A.M. that sounds like what a Wilco-novice might expect a Wilco album to sound like. The songwriting largely continues the last album’s polite, conventional folk-rock style to occasionally satisfying ends. Repeat listens fail to reveal much in the way of hidden layers - this is an upfront, pleasant set of songs that can, for the most part, be absorbed and digested in one listen. Once a band that did not fear deconstructing their more direct songs to find other exciting arrangements, Wilco songs now employ a safe, predictable professionalism. At times, as on “Wilco (the Song)” and “You Never Know”, this works perfectly, but the album’s back half drags as a few songs fail to fully distinguish themselves.
Beyond that though, the first thing you’ll notice about Wilco (the Album) is the top notch production values. Credit Jim Scott for that. A veteran producer the band hooked up with late last year while in Australia, Scott had a hand in mixing several of Wilco’s earlier albums. There is a vibrancy in the sound permeating these 11 songs, no doubt a result of additional studio over-dubs, that has been lacking over the past few albums. The huge open chords of “You Never Know” explode from the speakers, sounding like George Harrison or Tom Petty (or The Traveling Wilburys?), while the AAA radio-friendly “I’ll Fight” soars over a catchy acoustic guitar riff, pedal steel, and organ. And the electric guitars in both “One Wing” and “Bull Black Nova” hit with every inch of their intended gut punch. The improved sonics are a welcome change, but occasionally mask some of the album’s flaws. “Country Disappeared” has some nice piano and harmony parts, but the song could ultimately be used as a lullaby. It goes nowhere very slowly. And with its chiming guitars and heavy drums, “Sunny Feeling” has a Summerteeth-like power-pop sheen, but the cloying chorus quickly gets tiresome.
From Being There through A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy’s often non-linear lyrics were marked by personal angst, domestic violence, self doubt, and a crumbling sense of national pride. Starting with Sky Blue Sky and continuing here, Tweedy is focusing on songs filled with a sense of acceptance and the power of music (specifically their own) to bring people together. “Wilco (the Song)” may be on the slight side but is still a ton of fun. As far as self-referential rock songs go, it’s the complete opposite of those Replacements songs (“Talent Show”, “We’re Coming Out”, “Treatment Bound”, etc.) that were basically just about themselves being fuckups. Though there is the occasional dark cloud intruding on his sky blue sky, overall life seems pretty good in Tweedy’s world. “You And I” was recently ripped by Coke Machine Glow (their assessment is too harsh, but there’s plenty of truth in it), but it’s one of Tweedy’s most direct love songs, and “You Never Know” basically says that they’re going to leave the kicking and screaming to the younger bands. Album closer “Everlasting” mirrors the sentimental theme of Sky Blue Sky’s closer, “On And On And On”. In both there’s a submission to the inevitable, but a heartfelt declaration that love will withstand death and decay.
The highlight of Wilco (the Album), and the only time the band truly leaves their comfort zone, is “Bull Black Nova”. It’s a schizophrenic classic rock song that combines a heavy kraut-rock groove, piercing guitar work, and some atypical, character-driven lyrics. Like “Misunderstood”, “Via Chicago”, and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” before it, this song will challenge listeners with a potential new direction for the band. How much you like Wilco (the Album) may depend on how much you miss the band that used to fill their albums with this kind of tension. This is a polished, mature sounding record that is full of good songs, but is also neck deep in conservatism. Personally, I can appreciate the fine song craft that is all over Wilco (the Album), but I really miss the band that so often dared me to follow them down the road less traveled.
Stream :: Wilco (the Album)