Wilco have just released a new album, whose title and cover — in combination to the preceding album covers and titles of Star Wars and Wilco (The Album) — continue their tradition of unpretentious and unassuming music.
So what, you ask, because they haven’t made a good album since — take your pick: 2004, 2007, 2011 (my personal opinion on The Whole Love is that it was nowhere near the return to art-rock form it was made out to be beyond the bookending long-form tracks, especially the Krautrock opener). So what, you ask, because yesteryear’s Star Wars was their most lightweight record ever.
So this: I’ve long believed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to be a masterpiece of color and emotion, but I’ve come to think that the former was only possible due to the involvement of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and Jim O’Rourke (whose own discography as a drone-turned-folk-turned-art rock artist helped make the distance of “Radio Cure” and the foggy “Reservations” possible). Bennett wasn’t there for the too-pristine A Ghost Is Born (which I’ve long maintained is rendered obsolete with the existence of better versions of almost every track on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago), and Jim O’Rourke’s involvement grew smaller with each passing release until he was no longer with the band on 2009’s Wilco (The Album). That some people called Wilco the “American Radiohead” forced expectations on them that they simply couldn’t deliver because they were never the American Radiohead, and when Wilco decided on who they wanted to be (that is, that they wanted to be themselves, not coincidentally around the time of their eponymous release), most people wrote them off with the derogatory dad-rock. Cooler only than U2 because they weren’t forcing their music on you, on the radio or otherwise.
But while Wilco’s capacity for color started to diminish without the involvement of Bennett or O’Rourke, their capacity for emotion did not. Songs are often informed by emotion, so much so that people had mistaken Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to be about 9/11 (despite being written and recorded before the tragedy). Jeff Tweedy’s wine-aged and fatherly voice has that effect, you see. And his falsetto isn’t so much a falsetto as it is a whisper; constantly strained to the point of snapping. Unburdened by expectations, they release an (even more) introverted record than normal that lets his voice shine. Want examples? Look no further than the magic that Tweedy provides in the opening track around the 1:18 mark: the subtlest of melodic sighs.
Not to say that there isn’t color, because this one has even more of that than their last few, mostly thanks to the rhythm section. Take, for example, the surprisingly loud cymbals in the choruses of “Cry All Day” or the subtle use of steel drums (most people would have brought this more to the foreground) of “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” or the military nudge of closer “Just Say Goodbye”. Or, dig in to the supple drumming and insistent bass-line of “If I Ever Was a Child” that recalls the MVPs of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (the highest of compliments — that one was Dylan’s similarly introverted record in the most revolutionary and apocalyptic of times); the album’s best song.
Elsewhere, “Shrug and Destroy” contrasts its title with one of the album’s quietest songs, throwing keyboards and strings into the mix (though I wish there were more tune), while “Happiness” gets elevated by the lullaby keyboard line in the choruses.
For those who crave the aforementioned art-rock experimentation, there are some curve balls are thrown in the mix: “Someone to Lose” is a mid-album romp with another excellent bass-line and a suddenly rousing guitar that the band hides for a full minute before letting roar; Tweedy’s falsetto floats in the air above it. Elsewhere, a disorienting guitar distinguishes both “Common Sense” and “Locator”. And yet, the best example of the rhythmic color and reigned-in sonic experimentation aren’t these comparatively louder and darker tracks, but rather, “Quarters”, which has an odd percussion sound in the left channel (hand drums, I think?) and whose folksy sound gets jerked around in its climax and then cools down in a beautiful acoustic ambient coda. All this in under 3 minutes, mind you.
Wilco are in that place that every artist eventually reaches — a period where they’re no longer hip to like (because image) but who keep making music because — shocking — they might actually like doing that. (Sidebar: the dialogue where people wish that artists just give up as to not “tarnish their reputation” should really shut up and figure out why they’re so hateful.) It’s hard to convince the cool kids that this record’s quiet rebellion is worth hearing because it’s not drowned in irony or heady guitar parts or electronic sonics or whatever langue du jour. It’s simply, as mentioned, unpretentious, unassuming, and crucially, good music. Cheers to that! B PLUS