A narrative has already formed around Wilco’s eighth LP that has been repeated so often it is now conventional wisdom. Advanced reports and early reviews have described The Whole Love as a return to a more adventurous territory along the lines of 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, unlike the band’s last couple of records, which were more workmanlike and conventional. Technically, this is true. It’s just not accurate. Though The Whole Love is bookended by two sonically expansive tracks (“The Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” respectively), the ten tracks in between sound much like the Wilco you know and probably love. Jeff Tweedy has long tinkered with the band’s alt-country sound, going back to Being There (“Misunderstood” is stranger than most of the songs on The Whole Love) and even on Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the Album). The truth about The Whole Love is in fact way better than the hype: It is no more or less than a marvelous late-period Wilco album.
Let’s get the weird stuff out of the way. Nothing else the band has done sounds like “The Art of Almost.” Here is a lush Summerteeth-era gem boldly transfigured into a thunderous, clanking, beeping, thumping – and thrilling – epic of a Frankensong. Even at his most daring, Tweedy has full control of his chaos, inner and outer. Just when you think the song is going to slip into a vortex of distortion, in comes a glorious, frantic guitar-solo coda to bring it all back home. No less challenging is the hypnotic “One Sunday Morning,” which relies more on repetition and narrative than experimentation. Like the closer to a Dylan album, it rambles on and on for twelve minutes and by the end its audacity and nerve is more memorable than its melody.
Tweedy and his co-producers, bandmate Pat Sansone and Tom Schick, have finally captured the vigor of Wilco’s live act on a studio album. The fine 2005 live double-LP Kicking Television only diminished A Ghost Is Born; Ghost’s oblique songs suddenly roared to life and made their studio counterparts sound flaccid by comparison. Subsequent albums confirmed how staid the band can be off-stage. On The Whole Love, Wilco regains the energy last heard on Being There. It’s most obvious on “I Might,” which matches the gleeful frenzy of “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” A spry hook gets passed among an organ, a fuzzed-out bass guitar, and a glockenspiel, in that order, as Tweedy sings about pissing blood and setting kids on fire. “Dawned on Me” and “Standing O” are equally raucous, throwbacks to an era when Jeff Tweedy knew how to temper his gloomy lyrics with sing-along melodies.
Jeff Tweedy is still trying to break your heart, and he tears it asunder with hushed brevity on “Sunloathe,” “Black Moon,” and “Open Mind,” even as he continues his (perhaps) hopeless quest for self-exorcism (“Born Alone”). The Whole Love is a quintessential Wilco album, which means it exists mostly in slow-tempo and drags on a bit too long. But love demands you forgive its failings, and The Whole Love does just that. Totally.
Wilco - The Whole Love (Full Album)