When Wilco performed every song from its six albums over five straight nights at the Riviera Theatre in its hometown of Chicago in December 2007, there was a lot more to the shows than just making the band’s cult of fans tingle in ecstasy.
“I thought it was a great experience for this lineup to lay claim to everything that Wilco has done before,” said frontman Jeff Tweedy, who has maintained the same six band members for the past five years (the steadiest lineup in its 15-year history).
“Doing that gave us a lot of confidence to just be who we are, to just sound like Wilco. That’s a pretty loose definition, but it gave us a firmer foundation.”
Talking by phone from Chicago this week, Tweedy pointed to that five-night stand as the defining moment of Wilco’s latest album, cheekily but also meaningfully titled “Wilco (The Album).” The record’s opening track is named “Wilco (The Song).”
Wilco (The Singer) was happy to admit to something that critics and fans have either praised or dismissed about the new record: It sounds a lot like a bit of each of the band’s previous records.
“You can’t just push at boundaries to push at boundaries,” said Tweedy, 41. “You push at boundaries when you feel restless and you need to push. But then it’s good to come home to a base. Otherwise, you’re really just pushing from nothing.”
New songs like “Sonny Feeling” and the single “You Never Know” hark back to the rollicking, Americana-rock vibe of Wilco’s 1995 debut, “A.M.,” when Tweedy was better known from the pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. The ferocious “Bull Black Nova” features the dark, frenzied sounds of the addictions-rattled record “A Ghost Is Born.” And the ballad “One Wing” and the boy/girl duet with “1 2 3 4” hitmaker Leslie Feist, “You and I,” sound like the prettiest stuff on 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky.”
“I had probably the easiest time making this record out of all the records I’ve made,” Tweedy said.
“I forged through it just feeling kind of under control and generally positive without getting too neurotic,” he said with a laugh. “It was not completely devoid of those things because that’s a part of the process, but nothing in a derailing or debilitating way.”
Wilco’s unusually smooth stretch of sailing, however, came to an end a month before the new record’s release on May 25, when ex-guitarist Jay Bennett, 45 — a member of the band from 1998 to 2001 — was found dead of a prescription-drug overdose. The band heard the news while on tour in Spain.
“Well, it was certainly a sad piece of news and a bit of a shock when we found out,” Tweedy said, asked how it affected the group.
“At the same time, Jay hasn’t been a part of the band for a very long time. On a very personal level, it’s been very sad. As far as how the band has operated, it only affects us when it comes to answering questions about it. It’s a very tough question to answer, because it can sound callous, but that’s not the case.”
Referencing his own struggles with addiction and the band’s famous fall-out with Warner Bros. Records, among other things, he added, “There’ve been a lot of things Wilco has had to move on from, and this is one of them, as sad as it is.”
Adding to the calamity, Bennett had sued the band just a few weeks before his death, seeking more royalty payments. It appears the suit will be maintained by Bennett’s family. All Tweedy would say is, “Legally, we filed an answer to the complaint.”
Bennett’s death marks a sharp contrast to the lighter-hearted elements of “Wilco (The Album).”
Foremost among those is the record’s goofy sleeve art, which the band photographed outside the old German eatery Mader’s in Milwaukee with — what else? — a camel. The animal’s humps form a natural “W” for the album cover.
“The camel was a total pro,” Tweedy quipped, “and worked for fairly cheap. Not sure if he has a lot of competition in Wisconsin.”
Likewise, the record kicks off with the most tongue-in-cheek tune in Wilco’s repertoire, “Wilco (The Song).” In it, Tweedy offers up his band as salvation: “Do you dabble in depression?” he asks. “Is someone twisting a knife in your back? ... Wilco will love you, baby.”
Tweedy described the song as the group’s “infomercial.”
“I tried to sing other lyrics, like, ‘Let go, let go. Someone will love you, baby.’ But none of them really rang true. I didn’t really know what product I was selling, but I kept saying ‘Wilco’ because it seemed to fit, and everyone thought it was funny.”
Tweedy is still smiling after the record’s release.
“Probably the most exciting thing for me about this record is it feels like a really firm, sturdy foundation for what the next record’s going to sound like. That’s always exciting.
“And at this age, I’m happy to have that enthusiasm.”