Wherever I’ve been on the continuum between Wilco casual admirer and Wilco superfan (and I’ve been all over), my initial reaction to the release of The Wilco Book was of extreme suspicion and disbelief. With an acclaimed documentary, a string of successful albums, a book of poetry by the frontman, is the band really that good to warrant further ass-kissing in the form of a coffee-table book? Oh my sweet Jesus, etc. Upon inspection, there are a few eye-roll-worthy moments in these pages and on the accompanying CD (I’m looking at you, Rick Moody), but the overall mission here appears to be earnest exploration, not ego-fulfilling conquest. What a relief.
Insights on recording, writing, touring, gear, and all the attendant rock and roll flotsam aren’t particularly interesting because they’re about Wilco specifically, but because they illuminate the lives of working artists in general. Each band member chimes in with pieces of varying length on a variety of different topics, from tour bus boredom to favorite equipment to their different artistic methods and processes. For instance, Glenn Kotche writes “I think that the drum kit hasn’t been explored enough outside of the parameters of groove-based jazz of rock and that it has an exciting future. In a rock band, I think as much technique should be amassed as possible and then forgotten, only rearing its head for reasons of musicality or lyrical support.” This is invigorating material not just for drummers, not just for musicians, not just for Wilco.
Likewise, bassist John Stirratt talks about touring, “David Byrne is an avid bicyclist; he goes out immediately after arrival and spends all day on the bike, then arrives for check. It’s that window in the morning between arrival and sound check when you have time to see the town you’re in, which is a huge plus about touring, for me—even in Orlando.” This quote is accompanied by a bright color photo of backstage catering spread, complete with pita bread, Honey Nut Clusters, and M&M’s. The presentation of life in a band is far from both the cynicism of Meeting People Is Easy and the exuberance of, I don’t know, a KISS comic book. It’s human, demythologized, and dirt real. It’s a shame more bands don’t have the means to put together a project like this because the snapshots and anecdotes feel like part of a conversation as opposed to manifesto. The artwork includes photography by Michael Schmelling, primarily of the band and their instruments. The artwork is attributed to the band and various collaborators, some of which is stunning. The layout and arrangement are thoughtfully done, again emphasizing the love and investment of art as life’s work.
Essays by Henry Miller, Walter Sear, and Rick Moody are also included. Miller’s piece, first published in 1962, in is interesting mostly because its inclusion creates links between generations as well as art forms. Walter Sear (the 75-year-old founder of Sear Sound studios) is delightful, particularly when he writes, “If I have anything to say at all about Wilco, it’s Get a choreographer.” Moody’s piece, unfortunately, is nearly unbearable. In contrast to the mostly candid thoughts and reflections elsewhere, its analysis of five Wilco songs (one from each album) is overblown to the point of absurdity. The writing assumes a jocular tone of “hey buddy, let’s rap about some tunes” at the same time it digs way too deep into songs like A.M.‘s “Dash 7”. I’m as big a proponent of pop songs as legitimate, essay-worthy art as anyone, but portions of Moody’s essay are so extreme, they almost make me want to argue otherwise. Not exactly a high point to end this half of the review on, but I will say this: ickiness aside, as a music fanatic I still could not turn away.
The accompanying CD is obviously the big draw for completists, a collection of 12 structured improvisations, field recordings, and A Ghost Is Born almost-rans. After Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, news filtered out that its follow-up (dubbed Decibels Per Minute) would consist of these experiments. Well, it’s a good thing these tracks didn’t compose the next official release, but it’s also a great thing that they have found a better, wholly appropriate, context to be heard. I say this because if knuckleheads freaked out over the “avant garde” flavor of “Spiders/Kidsmoke”, their heads would’ve popped right off during “Doubt”. But releasing these tracks as part of The Wilco Book concept allows them to be heard for what they are: the necessary play good musicians engage in towards progressing their sound. Is the dropped percussion doodling of “Hamami” great experimental music? Not really, no. But in the life of a consistently evolving rock band it’s as important as anything else. Tweedy writes in the book, “Personally, I feel better when I’m making raw material—sketching stuff musically, writing things in notebooks, just accumulating.” The Wilco Book CD is pure accumulation, sometimes producing worthwhile pieces like “Diamond Claw” and “Pure Bug Beauty”, most often not. It’s fascinating nonetheless. New hire Mikael Jorgensen provides excellent notes on each track, describing the process behind recording them. One recurring exercise put Jeff Tweedy in a room alone with (usually) a guitar, unable to hear the other members. The rest of the band is isolated elsewhere, with the option of hearing Jeff’s improvising or not. They play along accordingly. Whether or not the results will be played at your Christmas party this year (try it) is beside the point. It’s clear to see that without this kind of playful exploration to rein back for their song-based work, Wilco might not be Wilco.