Wilco: Wilco (The Album)

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.


Wilco (The Album)

UK: Release Date: 2009-06-29
Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2009-06-30
Artist Website

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.