Wilco’s success is largely due to their ability to continually surprise, if not outright confound, their audience. Their first five albums saw the band transform from alt-country torchbearers to Wall-of-Sound sculptors to post-rock deconstructionists. Facilitating this transformation was a steady rotation of band members, moving both into and then out of the ranks, eventually leaving frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt as the only two original members. Looking back over their career, it’s easy to see that this constant shuffling of members propelled Wilco’s sonic evolution.
But the current incarnation of Wilco has been in place since 2004, having lasted now without a single personnel change for the creation of two albums. The consequences of such creative stability are double-edged. On the one hand, the band sounds more confident than ever, especially live. The recently released documentary Ashes of American Flags is testament to this, capturing Tweedy and company leaving audience after audience in awe as they perform at America’s most historic venues.
On the other hand, this also means that the creative leaps ushered in by each album are not as dramatic. Many critics and fans bemoaned the lack of experimentation on Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s 2007 release. Sure, there were some moments of sheer genius, such as the exquisite guitar interplay between Tweedy and Nels Cline on “Impossible Germany”. But then there was the middle third of the album, which sunk into the kind of middling country-rock the band regarded as anathema on their best albums.
And that’s the paradox of Wilco (The Album), the band’s latest release: serving as somewhat of a synopsis of Wilco’s career, it not only wows at moments, it also frequently leaves the disappointing feeling that they are playing it by the numbers. Just about everything on the album has a creative antecedent found on an earlier Wilco album. “Bull Black Nova”, for example, combines the kraut rock of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” with the Television-influenced angular solos of “Impossible Germany”. “Sonny Feeling” is created in the fist-pumping blues-rock mold of “Monday”. “Everlasting Everything” ruminates on mortality against a spare and haunting background, much like “Jesus, Etc.”.
There could be worse approaches to making a new album. Wilco may be returning to earlier territory, but what nice ground to revisit, and when this approach works, the results are sometimes astounding. “One Wing”, for example, sees Tweedy refining his earlier attempts at writing truly poetic lyrics, this time finding the perfect conceit to capture the hopeless feeling of separating. “One wing”, Tweedy sings, “will never, ever fly, dear / Neither yours nor mine, I fear / We can only wave goodbye”. Musically and lyrically, the song is simply brilliant.
Another fine moment is “Bull Black Nova”, which tells the story of a man who has just killed somebody, capturing in harrowing detail the paranoia that quickly sets in. Set against pulsating piano notes and erratic, intrusive guitar solos provided by Cline, the tale reaches its suffocating climax with Tweedy intoning “It’s in my head / There’s blood in the sink / I can’t calm down / I cannot think”. Hypnotic and disturbing, the track also captures Wilco at the top of their powers.
But for every fine moment, there’s one that plays it too safe, falls flat, or both. “You Never Know” features some very nice, George Harrison-inspired slide, but overall sounds rather pedestrian, like something that would be a hit on the adult contemporary charts. And “Everlasting Everything” cannot find the musical context to support its heavy themes, sounding tedious rather than poignant.
Curiously, though the album draws from earlier stages of Wilco’s career, there is none of the symphonic grandeur of Summerteeth. Since the recent and tragic death of Jay Bennett, many have been reassessing Wilco’s body of work, feeling that it peaked with that album (which was, in retrospect, obviously a product of Bennett’s studio and musical prowess) and has become increasingly stale ever since. For those who feel that way, Wilco (The Album) will only serve as confirmation.
Still, removed from the context of the band’s entire canon, it is an undeniably solid album, the ratio of hits to misses falling in favor of the former. Furthermore, it may not be entirely fair to assess an album by a band’s previous albums, to essentially judge something by a set of criteria that pertain to completely separate entities.
And yet, while it may not be fair, Wilco have reached their summits by deliberately inviting such comparisons. Tweedy and his numerous cohorts have done everything possible to defy categorization, flirting with and then spurning just about every genre imaginable. They’ve been extremely successful at doing this, but the inevitable consequence is that their fans expect something new with each album, and it’s not to be found here.
So, while Wilco (The Album) has its strong moments, it does not have many innovative ones. For a band whose reputation was built on being sonic pioneers, this can only be perceived as something of a letdown. A “solid” or “sturdy” album — which is certainly what Wilco (The Album) is — would be acceptable from many bands, but not Wilco. In the end, they may be their own worst enemy: they’ve not only set the bar unreasonably high for everyone else, but also for themselves.