[26 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you Google “American Radiohead”, you’re going to get a lot of results involving Wilco. Plenty are in reference to a Chuck Klosterman article, but most just mention it as a way to praise the band. But no one seems to be able to illuminate exactly what that means. As a matter of explaining Wilco’s approach to music, or its sound, it explains very little. In fact, comparing them with Radiohead says a good deal more about how our view of these bands has narrowed over time. In some ways, the comparisons are uncanny. Both have debut albums that are largely forgotten, and those who stand by them are considered contrarian. Both have their game-changing “classic”—OK Computer and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, respectively—that have left us struggling to define the bands ever since.
Our definition often relies on increasingly unreasonable expectations. We expect their ability to innovate to be exponential. A Ghost Is Born just had Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s success to build on/overcome, but Sky Blue Sky had to shoulder the weight of both albums, and so on. With this in mind, we’re quick to define each album as what it’s not—i.e., not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—and pigeonhole it under some other title. A Ghost is Born was the guitar-solo record. Sky Blue Sky was mellow soft rock. Wilco (the album) was some sort of summation of their sound.
This is all reductive and arbitrary, and built too heavily on first impressions. Most of the dismissal of Sky Blue Sky as a tame record—ignoring, for now, the pretensions inherent in terms like “dad-rock”—centers on the languid opener “Either Way” and the uniform production sheen, and ignores the record’s twists and turns. Wilco (the album) seems like a light affair because it starts with the jokey “Wilco (the song)”. In fact, even Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s untouchable reputation as dissonant and disconnected is set heavily (though not entirely) in its opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”.
This view of the records, though, makes them seem far more sonically unified than they are. If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is disconnected and fractured, that’s because most of what Wilco does deals in these breaks. Even the straight alt-country of A.M. is broken by the darkness of “Dash 7”. The far-flung yet consistently great Being There—which you could argue as their defining record over YHF—is a constant clash of the sweet and the cracked. Wilco is exciting because the band seeks to redefine our expectations for it with each record. And their new album, The Whole Love, continues that cycle to often brilliant effect.
The reason it’s constricting to pin Wilco down with definitions is because they are at their best when they pull the rug out from under themselves (and, by extension, us). Opener “Art of Almost” is as jarring as “Misunderstood” or “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, but it sounds like no Wilco song you’ve ever heard. It’s a clean break, a move to establish a wholly new landscape for this record, and it works. Orchestral flourishes at the start could recall their lush sound on Summerteeth if they weren’t so shadowy and alien. The song blips and squawks behind the bleary-eyed plea of Tweedy’s voice. But if it feels lost, it finds its footing in the fits and freak-outs of guitar that come in crashing squalls at the end. It’s a distinct shift from other dissonant tunes in the Wilco catalog. This doesn’t devolve; it comes together, searching for its shards and knitting them together into one sharp entity. If The Whole Love marks a change in perspective, it’s in this. Tweedy acknowledges the lonesome feeling that’s followed him around his entire musical career, but here he often debunks it. The excellent “Born Alone”, for example, may rest on the line “I was born to die alone,” but the triumphant roll of guitars that follows it belies that sentiment. This is the sound of unification, not isolation.
So if his lyrics feel occasionally nonsensical—what is a “low blow slo mo” or a “rising red lung glisten[ing] under the sun”?—Tweedy is still very much making representational art here. The feelings the words evoke are backed perfectly by these dark arrangements. “I Might” seems charged with bright energy, but a brittle acoustic and the distorted rumble of bass grind against the sunburst organs, so it’s no wonder Tweedy warns with a grin, “You won’t set the kids on fire, but I might.” “Sunloathe” starts with harmless, dreamy guitar chords, but the rhythm section drags it down into a perfect exhaustion of as Tweedy admits, “I don’t want to lose this fight, I don’t want to end this fight, goodbye.” It’s a subtle moment of clarity for Tweedy, highlighting that moment where we fight just to keep the fight going, because it’s a passionate (if destructive) connection, but the way the song cuts off reminds us of the folly in that play.
The songs in the middle of the record are compact tunes, but the arrangements make them feel much larger. The dusty “Open Mind” seems to have little to do with the Bobby Charles-stomp of “Capitol City”, or the crunching rock of “Standing O”, yet the three run together well late in the record. They all have layers drifting loosely around them, a light bed of strings or a cool keyboard that blurs their edges. So while these songs at first seem like separate islands, you realize there are sandbars between them, slight connections to keep things propelling forward. Song for song, the album plays to the band members’ strengths in subtle ways so that you have to really hear the details to appreciate the whole they become. Nels Cline doesn’t shred on the guitar; instead, he uses his knack for texture and atmosphere so that just one note resonates for nearly an entire verse. His work doesn’t call attention to itself here, but it’s some of his best recorded work for the band to date. The ever inventive Glenn Kotche takes a similar path to equally great effect. In the end, though, this record may be bass player John Stirratt’s show. His lines are high in the mix, and offer a playful rise and fall in the gaps and gouges of these songs. While Tweedy keens over the fray, Stirratt digs into it and adds a striking depth to the album.
All the band’s strengths come together in the 12-minute closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. Despite being a somber tune built around a finger-picked acoustic, it’s still a distant kin to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” since it is similarly built on insistent repetition—in this way, it also recalls Neil Young’s “Ambulance Blues”. But it’s also an utterly unique song, both in this album and it Wilco’s discography. It’s doesn’t build to fitful squalls, doesn’t crumble into static. It sets its course and travels it, rising and falling between hushed melancholy and faint hope. “This is how I’ll tell it,” Tweedy softly sings at the start. “Oh, but it’s long.” In one way it’s an apology, but in another it’s an insistence on the importance of storytelling. Because the details here are hard to follow, there’s familial strife and spiritual disconnection, and the story circles back around to its start on “one Sunday morning”. But as you follow the song, you absolutely feel the story, both the heartache of its facts and the relief that comes in merely telling it out loud. This record can be dark, sometimes cutting and bleakly funny, other times bittersweet, but in the end it speaks of pain not to feed it, but to leave it behind.
So while some had started talking like the story of Wilco has been written, like its best days are behind it, The Whole Love proves the band is still moving forward, still changing, even if it’s not in the lofty ways we expect it to. This isn’t a return to form, nor is it an out-and-out reinvention. It’s just the new Wilco album, and like all new Wilco albums, it doesn’t sound much like what came before it. This is what makes them one of the most fascinating bands working, and The Whole Love is a new, vital shard in their splintered discography.