Album Review: Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

With the deceptively prescient opening line of Sky Blue Sky, Wilco front man/singer/guitarist/indie-rock diety Jeff Tweedy once again reestablishes the direction of his band. “Maybe the sun will shine today…” are the words, and over the course of the record’s 12 songs there is decidedly more light, both in Tweedy’s direct manner of communicating his thoughts, and the band’s turn to a precisely straightforward, soulful sound. This is not to suggest that Tweedy has completely abandoned the dark and sometimes awkwardly painful exploration of his own relationships and psyche (I mean the word “maybe” in that line doesn’t exactly suggest a guarantee), but there is certainly more of an optimistic tone on Sky Blue Sky than Tweedy has previously been willing to reveal. This album seems to be the product of a man settled into a very healthy, comfortable period of his life. All this begs the question as to whether Sky Blue Sky, with its laid back, soft rock attitude (read: lack of edge), can be considered as an important record in the Wilco catalogue.

And to answer that question, Sky Blue Sky is an important record, if barely. Ever since Tweedy tried to purposefully trump Son Volt’s universally lauded Trace with the staggering mission statement of American music that is Being There, his band has been pushing the boundaries of what was expected of their music, whether shunning the stubbornly backwards leaning alternative-country genre on Summerteeth, deconstructing its music entirely on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or announcing Tweedy’s personal and emotional anguish onto record through A Ghost Is Born’s fractured guitar anti-heroics. Wilco has enjoyed one of indie-rocks most successful runs over the past decade by continually confounding both its fan base and critics. Sky Blue Sky continues the trend, but in perhaps the most unexpected way yet. Its warm, beautiful, and somewhat sleepy songs convey a band that is mature and confident, if decidedly restrained, and a lyricist who has become the poet-laureate for skillfully contemplative domesticity.

Sky Blue Sky also marks the first time that a Wilco record has featured the same exact set of musicians from one release to the next (granted the last album, Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, was a live album). In turn, the new record boasts some of the tightest, most intuitive playing to ever grace a Wilco album. These musicians are all experts on their respective instruments, but while working together are clearly more interested in servicing the songs than showing off their own individual talents. The only extended soloing to be found is during the final 3 minutes of “Impossible Germany”, where Nels Cline’s shimmering tones hover over a languid beat, beautiful and floating. Tweedy eventually joins him in a predestined duel, with Cline easily staying just ahead of his less distinguished, but just as passionate, partner. Drummer Glen Kotche may be the most reserved purported virtuoso ever, as his playing is never the focus of a song, and keyboardists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone add depth to the music while leaving the guitarists in the forefront. However, the unsung hero of these songs is bassist John Stirratt, the only other original member of the band. For a long time his deep and powerful lines have been overshadowed by his more omnipresent peers, but with these songs, which are closer to the type of sound he probably prefers (see his side band The Autumn Defense with Sansone), it is finally time to recognize the man for what he delivers - some of the most fluid and quietly addictive playing in the music industry.

The polite manner of the band makes clear that Sky Blue Sky is an album of songs, and for the first time in years it is pointless to try to connect the dots between them. Free of any sort of over-arching thematic elements, the songs are still mostly about the inter-personal relationships in Tweedy’s life, albeit in a less obliquely poetic way. “Either Way” hints at domestic strife, but rides such a breezy guitar line and has such bright imagery that any of its potential darkness is quickly overshadowed. “You Are My Face” is slightly bipolar, seemingly settled in its 70’s soft-rock groove until Tweedy’s jagged soloing swerves its middle section before it soon mellows out again. Of all the songs, “Hate It Here” seems destined to be the fan favorite. It’s a pure soul song, with plenty of electric piano and bluesy riffs, a huge Beatle-esque chorus, and some very tongue-in-cheek lyrics about Tweedy trying to figure out his way around the home after his woman takes off. There are also several attempts at returning to the rootsy, acoustic strumming of Sky Blue Sky’s ancestors, as on the title track, “Please Be Patient With Me”, and “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)”. “Walken” is a straight blues-rock boogie, seemingly straight off of one of Little Feat’s first two albums, and has a chorus that is an awful lot of fun to sing along too as Tweedy sends his voice into a falsetto at the end of each line. The only flat out failure in the bunch is the soporific “Shake It Off”. With neither a convincing melody nor interesting lyrics the song lumbers along monotonously, impressive only in its tightness and nothing else.

Around the time of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Tweedy was quoted as saying (and I’m paraphrasing based on memory), “I’m not interested in writing songs that anyone could sing. I want to write songs that only sound right when I’m singing them”. For years Tweedy accomplished his goal. Highly personalized, idiosyncratic songs such as “She’s A Jar” or “Handshake Drugs” would just sound out of place if sung by another. Well, on Sky Blue Sky he has finally come full circle, again comfortable writing songs that may induce nightly swaying concert sing-alongs and/or cover versions from other artists. “What Light” most clearly supports this idea, and is both direct and poignant enough to sound as though it could have been written by Woody Guthrie. On it in particular, but also throughout the album, Tweedy lets go of any potentially restricting artistic inclinations and embraces the collaborative relationship between artist and fan. “What Light” is a reminder that once a song reaches a fan’s ear the artist loses his control over it, as it now has the ability to move people in ways he can no longer direct. With this fan friendly goal in mind, Sky Blue Sky succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be: simply a collection of really good songs. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
MP3 :: You Are My Face
MP3 :: What Light
(from Sky Blue Sky)

Purchase Sky Blue Sky HERE

1 comment:

Matt said...

Excellent review...enjoyable read and well-written. kudos.