CHICAGO—Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy sits at the kitchen table in the band’s rehearsal space and recording studio, a third-story loft on the city’s Northwest Side, and indulges a fetish for antique art.
He rips open the plastic wrap on a rare double-album vinyl copy of the band’s sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch). He opens the gatefold to examine a large horizontal color image of the band at work in the loft, gazing up from their instruments, engulfed by gear, microphones, books, albums and CDs.
Wilco has been ahead of the music-industry curve when it comes to making the band’s music available on the Internet for everyone who wants it, free or otherwise. Many fans have already heard the new album, because it has been streaming on the band’s Web site, wilcoworld.net, for weeks. Others will buy the CD when it becomes available in stores this week.
But there’s little doubt Tweedy prefers this old-fashioned version of the record, a relic of a pre-digital era, when music came packaged with lyrics, credits, liner notes and pictures in a sturdy cardboard sleeve.
“Hey, we didn’t win a Grammy for best album packaging (in 2004) for nothing,” he says with a sarcastic smile.
Later, when assessing the notion that someday music will be entirely an invisible commodity distributed via Internet downloads, he balks. “It would be good for the environment if people aren’t selling pieces of plastic that are going to end up in a landfill someday,” he says. “At the same time, there are certain things that will be missed. Like good old cylinder players are missed.”
He’s kidding only a little bit. At first listen, it might be tempting to characterize Wilco’s new album as an antique, too, or at least a throwback to an era when musicians didn’t have computers and couldn’t construct an entire performance out of a few digitized notes and beats. The common ground for the current incarnation of the band—a six-piece lineup that includes founding bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and guitarist Nels Cline—is the music made between 1966 and 1974, Tweedy says. The band even recorded the music on a 2-inch reel-to-reel tape machine instead of computers, which is practically unheard of in today’s production world. It requires a band to essentially record complete takes of a song rather than overdub and edit parts at will.
Much about the album, from the way it was recorded to the artwork, evokes the casual community of recordings such as The Basement Tapes, an unvarnished document of the music the Band and Bob Dylan made during the late `60s in the basement of Big Pink, a house in Woodstock, N.Y. They share a similar spirit: friends gathered in a room, making music for music’s sake, recording all the instruments and voices while playing together.
“We built this studio and this environment to allow that to happen without a clock ticking,” Tweedy says. “No headphones, vocal mic 4 feet in front of the drum kit. Not a lot of separation between the instruments. Everything had to happen at the same time.”
Stirratt sounds almost relieved when describing the process. “It was the fastest record we’d done in a long time: a two-week recording session. I think 95 percent of the great rock music in the world is stuff that hasn’t been labored over too much.”
The last three Wilco albums have been labored affairs: meticulously constructed and then deconstructed in the recording studio. The results were extraordinary, producing at least one masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), but the band’s lineup was in constant flux.
Tweedy and Stirratt have been the sole constants in the band over its 12-year history, and they have weathered many changes in personnel, some of them tumultuous. But after A Ghost is Born was released in 2004, the band’s volatile internal chemistry stabilized. The current incarnation of Wilco is also the longest lived, at a mere three years. Blue Sky Blue is as much a testament to that stability as anything else.
“The silver lining of all those changes is that the DNA of the band keeps changing,” Stirratt says, “and so none of the albums really sound alike.”
Tweedy has also changed. He entered a rehab clinic in 2004 to deal with drug dependency, anxiety, depression and chronic migraine headaches, and is healthier than he has been in more than a decade. He quit smoking the next year.
Tweedy “not getting up every 10 minutes to smoke ... that brought a certain focus (to the recording sessions),” Stirratt says. “For some of the tunes on this album, we were sitting in chairs for four hours straight working out things. I can’t ever remember that happening.”
Tweedy says his improved health had a profound effect on his ability to make music. “I don’t sit there only having a half an hour to get a vocal take because my voice is going to get worse and worse the more I smoke and the more anxious I get because we’re not getting a take. There are stamina issues (relating to) focus and concentration, just purely physical issues that are completely different than any other experience I’ve had making a record.”
It led to the most collaborative Wilco album yet. Tweedy always said his ideal was to have everyone in the band involved in the songwriting and arranging, but it rarely ended up that way. This time, the singer brought in bare-bones chords and lyrics, but many of the songs were constructed with everyone in the room, the band seated in a circle with their instruments trading ideas and riffs. Half the songs were co-written by band members with Tweedy.
The sound they created is warm and intimate, with Kotche dialing back his formidable array of percussion textures to serve the songs in deft, understated fashion. Stirratt’s bass playing is exemplary, underpinning the interplay of the guitars, which weave in and around each other on luminous tracks such as “Impossible Germany,” “You Are My Face” and “Side With the Seeds.”
Tweedy’s nicotine-free voice pushes into vocal ranges he hadn’t previously approached. It’s a more emotional style that suits the lyrics, which depict a narrator trying to accept life as it comes rather than sinking beneath its demands. Whereas earlier albums found the singer expressing his anxiety in denser, coded language, Sky Blue Sky is unusually unguarded and vulnerable. The death of Tweedy’s mother last year occurred as the album was being completed, and it colors one lyric in particular from the song “On and On and On”:
One day we’ll disappear together in a dream
However short or long our lives are going to be
I will live in you or you will live in me
Until we disappear together in a dream.
It’s the final song on an album built on subtlety, friendship and quiet beauty.
“I’m really surprised we made this record first with this lineup (of band members) because we’re a lot more versatile than we’ve ever been as a band, and there are a lot of directions we can go,” Kotche says. “But the directness of the lyrics really influenced what we did. I think the music illustrates that. There was no reason for (Tweedy) to obscure it personally for himself anymore.”
The singer agrees.
“Since the last time I wrote a record, there have been pretty significant changes in my life, and there is a lot less to hide,” he says. “I don’t think that’s all that accounts for (the directness). It felt like the bravest thing to do. ... The world is so complex now, you can’t make it any more complex. You can make it a little simpler, draw yourself back to some ideas that are somehow consoling. Even before my mom died, there was the idea (within the band) that people need consolation. Not that I have some exalted idea of our ability to provide that for people. But for ourselves, the act of playing music is consolation.”
Greg Kot is the author of the 2004 biography Wilco: Learning How to Die.
// Notes from the Road
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