Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
If you're prone to confusing honest musical maturity with banality, then you'll surely miss out on the treasures of Sky Blue Sky.
There is already considerable opinion and criticism in print and on the internet regarding Wilco’s sixth studio album. I’m writing this review approximately one month after the band streamed Sky Blue Sky in its entirety via its website (and the subsequent file-sharing leak of massive proportions) and one month before the album’s official release on aluminum poly-whatever. I’ve listened to the album countless times, and am fairly steeped in the consternation, confusion, and griping surrounding its songs, production, direction, lyrics, etc., in the reams of web and other chatter. No doubt you’re familiar with it as well, even if you haven’t heard the record yet, which, where the hell have you been? I can also understand a lot of the present and future complaints with Sky Blue Sky, because at various points I’ve shared them: the album is too slick, oddly unexperimental, straightforward, sentimental, embarrassingly direct. But lately I’ve had to face the awkward truth that despite my initial misgivings, I’ve listened to the album more than any other released in 2007 thus far, and there’s no stopping in sight.
Since the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, every album Jeff Tweedy has released with Wilco has faced mountains of expectation as to how it will and should sound. At the same time, every Wilco record has consistently defied those expectations in one way or another. It’s the same vicious cycle that exists with many bands, but somehow feels more pronounced with Wilco, particularly since the band has been erroneously dubbed the “American Radiohead” since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sky Blue Sky makes it clear that the band is nothing more or less than the American Wilco, and that anyone still holding onto hope of sonic experimentalism and whatever is deemed “groundbreaking” at any given point, is setting themselves up for disappointment. The artistic failure or success of Sky Blue Sky should not be evaluated on the scale of how progressive it is, but I fear it will be, which is a shame because the album is solid in accomplishing its own objectives. A soulful, sad, yet ultimately hopeful document largely about putting a brave face in the midst of a dissolving relationship, indulging influences from Bill Fay to Charles Wright to Steve Miller, Sky Blue Sky is the rare, mature album where said maturity is seldom compromised by banality.
At first, I was sure of what I knew to be wrong with Sky Blue Sky; I had it all figured out, and couldn’t wait to tell you all about it. The thing I loved best about Wilco, I decided, was when they stretched themselves beyond their on-paper capabilities. Following the dismissal of Jay Bennett, for example, Jeff Tweedy decided it was up to him to handle lead guitar duties for the first time, resulting in fractured, nerve-rattling solos in live performances (most notably on “At Least That’s What You Said”, from 2004’s A Ghost Is Born). I also happen to regard that album as the band’s best effort for the same reason that, as a whole, it tries way more than it reasonably should, and is a beautiful, sprawling mess for it. In starkest contrast, Sky Blue Sky is cohesive, consistent, and smooth. Tweedy called it the easiest record to make the band has ever done, and it’s obvious from first listen. The now six-piece outfit glides through every song like consummate professionals, with no ten-minute droning outros, ecstatic collapses, or squalls of found noise. The instrumental palette is classic rock all the way: guitars, drums, bass, keys, maybe some strings ... that’s all, thank you very much. And the production is squeaky clean; the blood and guts and feedback mopped up, or at least made to smell pine fresh -- all of which led me to decide early on that the whole affair was a big, unchallenging mistake.
But the paradox is that while Sky Blue Sky is the smoothest sounding Wilco album, it also takes the longest to absorb and understand. Songs that float by like pillowy stars ultimately reveal themselves to be just as dense and combustible as “Misunderstood” over time. The title track, for instance, instantly sounds like a knock-off of Being There’s “Far, Far Away”, with its waltz tempo and similar chord progression. Did the band goof, forget that they’ve already been down the same road before? Maybe --- but a more plausible theory is that “Sky Blue Sky” is the intentional flipside of its predecessor. “Far, Far Away” was a night song, a traveling song, a "miss you" song from an itinerant lover who can’t wait to get back home and “kiss and ride on the CTA”. “Sky Blue Sky” sits at the other end of the relationship, after all of the physical separation and distance have taken their toll. Optimistic longing is replaced by doleful resignation, “With a sky blue sky / This rotten time wouldn’t seem so bad to me now”, Tweedy sings in a bummed out mumble, while streaks of pedal steel careen over the folksy strum of an acoustic guitar. That the song is cousin to the touching sweetness of “Far, Far Away” is appropriate because the loneliness of each is the same, and the reasons are different, but related.
WILCO [Photo: Chris Strong]
“Hate It Here” shows off remarkable soul in Tweedy’s vocal as he describes domestic duties he’s now charged with performing post-breakup, “I try to stay busy / I do the dishes, I mow the lawn / I try to keep myself occupied / Even though I know you’re not coming home”. The arrangement is rich but uncluttered, focusing on R&B-flavored organ, spikes of lead guitar, and warmly zooming bass in the first half of the song. Halfway through, the tone shifts as Tweedy rasps, “I hate it here / When you’re gone”, as harmonizing electric guitars stomp around in lockstep with Glenn Kotche’s drums, funky and playful. A record or two ago, the instruments would bleed their noise all over the song, or get dressed up in layers of static, but every tone and color is now tightly composed and in place. “Hate It Here”, like most of Sky Blue Sky, isn’t about being in shambles, it’s about trying to move on, heal, and grow. There’s a humorous aspect to the song as well, inherent in the singer’s complaints about housework, as if the singer wishes his lover back simply because he wouldn’t have to change his sheets or fold laundry any more, as the boy who never grew up is finally responsible for his own grooming and upkeep. But the listener knows, particularly with the bluster of the song’s crescendo, there’s much more at stake.
“I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed / Though I must’ve let you down too many times”, Tweedy admits on “You Are My Face”, after a lengthy string of the stream-of-consciousness wordplay he’s become increasingly fond of (check: “ordinary beehives”, “I hate you hate you hangin’ ‘round my blue jeans”). On the whole, however, Sky Blue Sky is peopled by far fewer aquarium drinkers and bee muzzles than other outings, and even the occasional muddy verse is eventually shot through with insight. Sometimes, as in “You Are My Face”, clarity comes immediately to the rescue via conversational, rather than imagistic, language. “I have no idea how this happens / All of my maps have been over thrown / Happenstance has changed my plans / So many times”, Tweedy yelps through moody swirls of organ and piano and shifting rhythms. Other times, a song makes better sense in context with the rest. “Impossible Germany” seems impenetrable with the repeated phrase, “Impossible Germany / Unlikely Japan / Wherever you go / Wherever you land”. But considered with the album’s recurring themes of relationship dissolution, the invocation of two of the three WWII Axis powers starts to make sense, even as just a vague association with threatening forces. “This is important / But I know you’re not listening” gives way to Nels Cline’s trembling lead guitar pointillism that trains the song more toward melancholy than outright despair. The leads get progressively more involved over the song’s six minutes, as the lyrics seek at least temporary resolution, “With no larger problems / That need to be erased / Nothing more important than to know / Someone’s listening / Now I know / You’ll be listening”.
Those lines from “Impossible Germany” could very well be the crux of the entire record, the need to reestablish even just the most basic communication, to rebuild, make things okay. The gentle, fingerpicked “Be Patient With Me” more explicitly addresses the singer’s need to reach some understanding. Utilizing one of the sparest, simplest arrangements of any Wilco song on record, Tweedy whispers his words, delicately underscoring the mission at hand with painful sincerity, “How can I warn you when my tongue turns to dust / Like we’ve discussed / It doesn’t mean that I don’t care / It doesn’t mean that I don’t care / You’re gonna need to be patient with me”. The intensely personal and conversational tone is sure to unsettle those who’ve grown accustomed to spiders and kidsmoke, and it might even strike some as dull, but I find Tweedy’s words all over Sky Blue Sky to be some of the most affecting and least clumsy of his career.
WILCO [Photo: Michael Segal]
The improved balance between directness and poetics has enhanced the quality of both aspects of Tweedy’s writing. The best example of this is “Side With the Seeds”, which combines the two styles in a disarmingly gorgeous soul setting. After a riffling drum roll, Tweedy paints a city scene with effective, efficient language, “Tires type black / Where the blacktop cracks / Weeds spark through / Dark green enough to be blue”. The second half of the verse then takes the images further to interpret them, “When the mysteries we believe in / Aren’t dreamed enough to be true / Some side with the leaves / Some side with the seeds”. The band has rarely sounded better, the crisp production allowing every element in the mix enough space to shine through. The piano-organ tandem comes out of the speakers almost perceptibly golden, with Tweedy’s rasp leading the charge through stylistic territory that, while not carrying the “future of rock” burden on its back, is at least fairly new to the band. “You and I will be undefeated / By agreeing to disagree”, Tweedy offers in the second verse, and in the third, “Embracing the situation / Is our only chance to be free / I’ll side with you / If you side with me”. The exact nature of the situation is never stated, but the song is just specific enough to inspire confidence in its truth, and just vague enough to allow listeners to insert their own lives and relationships into its meaning. The closing seconds of “Side With the Seeds” are a firestorm of Cline’s lead guitar that offset the composure and wisdom of the lyrics with tension and uncertainty, but still without fuzz or distortion. It’s as if the song could spin off and out of control at any moment, but steadfastly refuses to do so.
The album is bookended by similar poles of confidence and unease. “Either Way” opens Sky Blue Sky with Zen-like calm, “Maybe you still love me / Maybe you don’t / Either you will or you won’t”. The song is breezy and unconcerned, its guitars glossy and rippling, its pace unhurried. “Maybe you just need some time alone / I will try to understand / Everything has its plan”, Tweedy sings ... “Either way / I’m gonna stay / Right for you”. The language is plain, but the emotions conveyed are complicated. It’s difficult to hear the song and not be moved by the candor, especially as performed by the band without coming off as overwrought. The band, augmented by little swells of strings, reassures the voice just it attempts to reassure itself. The closer, “On and On and On”, works the same way, but with a much higher degree of doubt. The song is built on a foundation of suspenseful minor piano chords, over which Tweedy declares “On and on and on we’ll stay together yeah / On and on and on we’ll be together yeah”, and as much as you want to believe him, the odds feel far more stacked than they did on “Either Way”. “One day we’ll disappear together in a dream / However short or long our lives are going to be / Please don’t cry” -- match these lines up against Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s closer, “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you”, and it’s a struggle not to get a bit misty-eyed. If it wasn’t clear from the first track, it should definitely be by now that these are songs without defenses, from the autumnal “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” to the brotherly “What Light”. And it’s that generosity, coupled with exquisitely beautiful melodies and performances that should be celebrated and embraced, not suspected. Here’s hoping.