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Given the debate about violent imagery in rap music fueled by Los Angeles collective Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All, it’s worth remembering that other musical genres can equally explore the dark side of human existence. “Via Chicago” starts with these strikingly provocative lines: “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt alright to me.” The song continues with such stark imagery as “Your cold, hot blood ran away from me to the sea.” “Via Chicago” is one of the most beautiful paradoxes in Wilco’s songbook, a track simultaneously about the mixed feelings we may have about someone we love, the power of love to transcend the pains of death, and what it means to search for a home. Musically, “Via Chicago” finds a delicate balance between the band’s folky, acoustic side and its experimental tendencies. The first half of the song is relatively straight ahead, but the second features an arhythmical drum “freakout” and a collage of atonal guitars. The palpable pain in Tweedy’s voice as he repeats the line “searching for a home via Chicago” at the end of the song suggests the anguish of a vulnerable, confused man.
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s release date was originally slated for September 11, 2001. However, because of record company complications detailed in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, the album’s official release date was pushed back. When the tracks leaked online, though, the band started streaming the album a few days later. In the shadow of the September 11 attacks, many found solace in the record’s evocation of themes of alienation and its overall melancholy tone. The provocatively titled “Ashes of American Flags” especially speaks to the feelings of helplessness many experienced in the wake of the tragedy. The song describes a world in which the best way to spend money is on Diet Coke and unlit cigarettes, nobody appreciates the profound wisdom of poets, and the ultimate sign of success is experiencing “a fresh wind and bright skies to enjoy my sufferings”. The speaker realizes that his perusal of the American Dream is leaving him short of legitimate happiness. His “lies are always wishes”. The song’s final two lines (“I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / And all the falling leaves filling up shopping bags”) simultaneously suggest despair and optimism. The American flag, a symbol whose power became especially potent following the attacks, might have fallen to ashes and the dying leaves might be falling off of the trees. However, the trees will one day grow their leaves back and the flags will one day represent something meaningful for the speaker. The cycle of life is apparent, even amongst the speaker’s despondency.
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
“Radio Cure” begins with one of the most emotionally naked lines from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: “Cheer up honey, I hope you can / There is something wrong with me.” Appropriately, the musical texture at the start of this track is as sparse as it has been on the record thus far, a minimalist acoustic guitar part consisting of one prominently repeated note layered on top of a quarter-note bass drum pattern. They key word in this opening lyric, though, is “something”. Is the speaker referring to a physical ailment, the emotional scars of a failed relationship, or both? Some have interpreted the song as being about a cancer victim, with lines about “radio cures” and “electronic surgical words”. More than likely, though, the speaker is reflecting on the pains of lost love. His mind is filled with “Silvery stars / Honey kisses clouds of love” because he can’t erase the blissful memories. The famous line “Distance has no way of making love understandable” suggests that no matter how much he tries to separate himself from the memory of his former lover, he will never fully recover. “Radio Cure” is simultaneously one of the greatest breakup songs of all time and a stirring metaphysical reflection on the fragility of existence.