For the past 20 years or so, Wilco have primarily been an in-house band. They’ve recorded their music in their studio, served as their producers, and even started putting music out on their label, dBpm Records. If they ever turned to an outside producer, it was someone who usually turned out to be a co-producer of an album alongside either Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, or the band as a whole. Cousin, Wilco’s 13th LP, marks the first time they have handed over all production duties to an outside artist. For that task, they have chosen Cate Le Bon, a 40-year-old singer-songwriter who sometimes sings in Welsh. Is she a good fit? If the lack of tension in Cousin is any indication, things must have gone pretty smoothly.
Cousin arrives just one year after Wilco’s alt-country double album Cruel Country. These ten songs are “back in their more familiar progressive and experimental rock territory”, which is just dBpm’s longhand way of saying the record isn’t Americana. If Cousin has a close sonic relative in Wilco’s back catalog, it must be 2019’s Ode to Joy, the Chicago sextet’s whisper-quiet answer to the question, “Just how subdued can these guys get?” Cousin, like Ode to Joy, plays it close to the chest. With ten tracks in 43 minutes, everything is kept under tight control. There are some guitar solos and soundscaping to be had, but it’s all held back at the expense of Tweedy’s songs, upon which Le Bon shines the light. An album like Cousin is only as good as the material in its barest form.
And as far as the bare-bones material goes, Tweedy has offered up a sturdy ten that ring like faint echoes of earlier Wilco releases. The guitar glissandos of the first single, “Evicted”, evoke the more prominent twang in “Should’ve Been in Love” from their debut A.M., but that is a small part of the picture. The rest of the track is a fluttery tale of someone who foresaw themselves getting dumped: “Maybe I’m a whistle on a lonely old train / I’m crying all the time / Listen to the sound getting further away / Fading deep / Into the night.” The rumbling noise that nudges the opening song “Infinite Surprise” is slightly reminiscent of an older number like “Wishful Thinking” when Wilco let a little industrial gurgling stand in for musical interludes. But beyond that, “Infinite Surprise” doesn’t have much in the Surprise department for you. Just a heads up, the refrain is “It’s good to be alive.”
When Wilco does get around to the surprising elements in Cousin, they pull them off with so much subtlety that you might miss them entirely. The second half of the album starts with one of these moments as the sleepy waltz “A Bowl and a Pudding” gently twirls around and around, avoiding a definitive chorus as Tweedy’s voice echoes back on itself. “Pittsburgh” certainly has the potential to be the largest-sounding song on the album, splashing the listener with airy blasts of fuzz through the opening bars. But aside from that and some heavily-treated atonal piano partway through, it’s another Wilco ballad. “Soldier Child” is a laid-back folksy strummer that might avoid detection if it weren’t for the guitar solo towards the end, one that sounds a lot like the soloing Tweedy performed on A Ghost Is Born. Perhaps Nels Cline was not available that day.
When the listener finds Tweedy leaning too much on hackneyed lyrical phrases, Wilco will pull out tiny tracks to make it right, or at least better. The final song, “Meant to Be”, balances the phrase “our love was meant to be” with a simple 12-string pattern played with, for lack of a better phrase, the perfect touch. In the LP’s second single, the title track “Cousin”, Tweedy follows “it never hurts to cry”, with the far more interesting “the dead awake in caves”. The request to “save me / Save me again” in “Levee” gets a slight boost from the band and Le Bon, creating a bit of atmosphere in the background. On the other hand, the lyrics to “Ten Dead” add some much-needed dread to an otherwise plodding arrangement. “I woke up this morning and / I went back to bed / Ten dead / Now there are ten dead / Turn on the radio / This is what they said / No more than ten dead.” True to Tweedy’s lyrical practices, the tragedy remains unidentified.
Not to take the easy way out, but the artistic success of Cousin lies in the ear of the beholder. If your favorite aspect of Wilco is the variety and experimentation that they packed into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, or if you enjoy the most upbeat and amped-up songs sprinkled through Summerteeth, Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love, then you might dare I say it, grow a little bored with Cousin. If you feel that the laser-focused consistencies of sticking to what you know in Ode to Joy and Sky Blue Sky are more important traits, Cousin will scratch that itch.
However, held up against what Wilco have accomplished, Cousin feels like a pretty good album from a band that outgrew “pretty good” long ago. Wilco can stand out from the roots-informed indie pack, but Cousin shows they are content to go with the flow, much like that affable enough relative you get along with but don’t see that often.