For years, music critics have lazily referred to Wilco as “America’s Radiohead”, and while vague sonic comparisons can be made between the two, the similarities are mostly in general approach and philosophy. Both bands started out with straightforward leaps into popular genres (Wilco: alt-country, Radiohead: Britpop) before eventually freeing themselves from the shackles of formats by just doing what they felt sounded interesting, inspiring and adventurous.
Radiohead officially broke free with OK Computer in 1997, while Wilco battled the music business in the early aughts with the gorgeous, experimental-yet-tuneful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, telling the suits at Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise Records to take it or leave it. Wilco clearly walked away from the battle victorious, signing with artist-friendly Nonesuch Records (another Warner subsidiary, making it the band’s ultimate middle finger to major labels) and gaining truckloads of critical huzzahs as well as plenty of new fans. They’ve been crafting all subsequent records their own way ever since (and, since 2011’s The Whole Love they’ve been doing it on their own label, a Wilco inevitability).
Wilco’s anything-goes approach means, among other things, that even when they make an album that seems oddly conventional, it can come off as some sort of anomaly. When they dial down the noise and work with chords that are less dissonant, it still seems like they’re up to something. They haven’t made an album completely free of sonic oddities since A.M., their 1995 debut, so there’s always an expectation of weirdness.
Schmilco, the band’s 10th studio album, comes on the heels of Star Wars, last year’s surprise freebie download album, and while it was recorded during the same sessions as its predecessor, it mostly bypasses the unconventional, experimental, unstructured feel of that album. The songs, for the most part, possess more straightforward sonic architecture, and it’s also a much more restrained record. Acoustic guitars are front and center. Drummer extraordinaire Glenn Kotche keeps things more subdued, often eschewing sticks for brushes. Jeff Tweedy’s vocals are often delivered in a low-key, almost sotto voce manner.
Not surprisingly, Tweedy’s lyrics are often deeply personal, reflecting both nostalgia and present-day issues. On the folky opening track, “Normal American Kids”, he tackles adolescent ennui and the trials of being the weird, unpopular kid. “Bongs and jams and carpeted vans / Hate everything I don’t understand / High times tightening the lid / I had to get away from those normal American kids.” Likewise, “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” marries a buoyant musical atmosphere with high school references (“It’s been quiet in detention all week”) and a sarcastic swipe at the USA for Africa charity mega-hit (the timeline checks out as Tweedy was a high school senior when “We Are the World” topped the pop charts).
But Schmilco is also about getting older and dealing with adulthood’s harsh realities. “Cry All Day” may defy its title with a swift, upbeat musical arrangement, but the lyrics evoke a deep sadness (it’s been theorized that the song was inspired by the cancer battle fought by Tweedy’s wife). “I’m sick of your affliction,” Tweedy sings, while Kotche’s drums gallop along and Nels Cline’s spacey guitar fills provide just the right atmosphere.
While Schmilco doesn’t possess a lot of the freewheeling avant-garde leanings of Star Wars, there are still moments when the dissonance creeps in. Sometimes it works — the brief “Quarters” employs a refreshingly unorthodox structure, veering between acoustic fingerpicking and campfire percussion to pastoral prog/folk soundscapes — but it also tends to fall flat, like on the self-consciously idiosyncratic “Common Sense”. Tweedy and the band have always approached experimentalism with an even hand, giving the odd moments a sense of purpose, but on this track it seems like they’re trying too hard. It’s the album’s biggest misfire.
Even with all the musical leaps Wilco have made in their more than two decades together (as well as their revolving-door lineup — only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from the first album), they’re still able to craft a simple, catchy tune that recalls their earlier, more direct recordings. “Someone to Lose” is a delicious mid-tempo delight, all strumming acoustic guitars and loping basslines, and wouldn’t sound out of place on their 2009 self-titled album or even A.M. Likewise, the strutting, acoustic-based stomper “Nope” has a sparse, confident backbeat and the kind of barroom twang that would fit in nicely on Being There.
The title Schmilco is an obvious nod to singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, whose 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson showed the multitalented artist building on his established formula of crafting pop-rock gems while stretching out into new areas and following his muse wherever it took him. Wilco continue to follow their own muse, and without the pressures of record label interference or fickle pop trends, they can pretty much do whatever they want – which can even mean a low-key, laid-back collection of songs that have no obligation to break any new ground.