Alpha Mike Foxtrot's 77 tracks suggest that Wilco didn't have an experimental period. Instead, we see Wilco as an ever-changing, constant experiment in and of itself.
Wilco is commemorating its 20th anniversary as a band with two big releases: the four-disc rarities set Alpha Mike Foxtrot and the greatest-hits set What's Your 20?. Both sets give us an interesting opportunity to look back on the band's legacy without the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot looming over everything. Both sets have plenty of tracks from that era, to be sure, but without the album itself we get to look at the band without seeing a series of albums that are underestimated or ignored for coming before or after that classic record. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its own contained narrative in a lot of ways. It's the band's most well-known work, but there's also the label drama behind the scenes, the idea that this was the band finally fully embracing experimentation, internal fractures within Wilco. Nevermind that, in light of his untimely passing, to make Jay Bennett a subplot in the story of Wilco feels strange (at best), even disrespectful (at worst).
This approach to the album's story -- documented in the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart film and somewhere within just about any writing on the band in the past 10-plus years, including here -- makes us approach each album with an oversimplified narrative. A.M. is the alt-country record. Being There is the sprawling double album. Summerteeth is the shimmering pop collection. See above for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A Ghost is Born is the post-YHF record with all the guitars. Sky Blue Sky led us to that ridiculous "dad-rock" descriptor. Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love are the albums where we realized this line-up isn't going anywhere.
All these narratives have their flaws, and each pigeonholes records far too dynamic to fit into such tight parameters. Alpha Mike Foxtrot gives us a new way to imagine the Wilco story. In collecting 77 non-album tracks, culled from bonus discs and compilations, soundtracks and b-sides, live cuts and demos, this four-disc collection suggests that Wilco didn't have an experimental period. Instead, we see Wilco as an ever-changing experiment in and of itself. The band's sound grows and changes and morphs, but it never really leaves the past behind. Wilco isn't a band that spent time working up to its best record. It's one that is in a state of constant change.
This is clear right from the outset, where we get demos and extra cuts from the band's early years, around the making of A.M. The demos are particularly interesting, as the intimate folk of this early take on "Someone Else's Song" feels like a through-line that can run through "She's a Jar" (also presented in a harrowing, string-less demo later in the set) to "Radio Cure" and all the way to "Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)". The demo of "Passenger Side" without the rattling guitar fills of the studio version, suggests that A.M. is at its heart a pop record. It could twang to be sure, but this take has more in common with Summerteeth demos that crop up on disc two than anything else. For one, "Passenger Side" has a melody that is kissing cousins with "I'm Always in Love", but the Summerteeth demos, which include crunchy takes on "ELT" and "Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway (Again)", are lean and scrappy just like much of A.M. is, albeit without the alt-country baggage. In these demos, we strip away the grand instrumentation we expect from Wilco and see a lean rock band at the center of it all.
That lean rock band blooms into something else on stage. We get glimpses of various line-ups and periods in Wilco's history here, and each is bracing in its own way. An early, stripped-down take on "Boxful of Letters" opens up the emotional possibilities for that song. It also links it to the deeply emotive and expansive version of "Sunken Treasure" that comes near the end of disc one. These ruminant live moments speak to the plain resonance of the band, but there's also plenty of muscle to see here. A live cuts of "Casino Queen" rattles with joyful abandon the same way Being There's "Outta Mind (Outta Site)" does early on disc two. "Can't Stand It", the lush opener to Summerteeth, is rusted and barbed on stage. Yes, later cuts like the huge jams of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", "Hell is Chrome", and "Impossible Germany" blow open into thorny tangles of guitar. But the way these earlier cuts, from earlier line-ups, shift mood, tone, and texture from song to song sets up the kind of exploratory playing that would follow.
The non-album tracks here don't always reflect the sounds that ended up on the records, but instead complicate the types of experiments the band dug into. Of particular interest are the covers. Early on, the band covers Moby Grape's "I Am Not Willing" and coats it in an intricate, hazy dust that suggests Wilco was never all that straightforward. A version of "James Alley Blues" that Tweedy performed with the Byrds' Roger McGuinn lines up nicely with Wilco's work with Woody Guthrie's music on the Mermaid Avenue records. A bittersweet version of Daniel Johnson's "True Love Will Find You In The End" shows both Tweedy's love of various types of songwriters, his sense of how even the most fringe players can fit into a folk tradition, and also some of the moods that inspire that more plaintive moments on, especially, Summerteeth.
And then there's brilliant non-album cuts like the YHF-era "Cars Can't Escape" or A Ghost is Born b-side "Panthers" that find the band settling into new sounds. The former is coated on all sides by dissonance, but at the center is a sweet bit of melancholia. The latter turns that sweet center inside out, as the quiet song gets steadily punctured by notes and slowly, perfectly, bleeds out. "Let Me Come Home" takes a less-is-more approach, showing that Wilco could not only fill space to create feeling, but the band could also clear it out. Even on later tracks, like "The Thanks I Get", "One True Vine", and "Glad Its Over", when the band seems poised to return to some of the trad-rock leanings that anchored Being There and Sky Blue Sky, there's a sense of playfulness in the compositions, in Tweedy's bright singing, in the thumping rhythms.
You can follow various threads through Alpha Mike Foxtrot and find a different story. You can see the evolution of a rock band and a live act, the growth of a songwriter, the journey to find the next set of right players, the cohesion and expansion of a band's sound. And yet, the box set never gives you a sense of completion. There's not a sense, as the cover of Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label" ends the collection, that this is a story that has reached its end. Alpha Mike Foxtrot is a fascinating, and remarkably consistent, look at how Wilco has refused to define itself. It's not a defined space, a structure fenced in. Its borders are constantly shifting, constantly being gerrymandered into new, twisted positions. There is no clear path through the past 20 years, which is what has made them so exciting, and what sets up questions for what comes next.