Wilco 2001
Photo: Sam Jones / Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Expanded ‘Yankee Hotel’ Reconstructs Wilco’s Most Dramatic Creative Shift 

Compared to earlier Wilco back-catalog reissues this beefed-up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot suffers somewhat from a case of “more isn’t always more”.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Super Deluxe Edition)
30 September 2022

Few music releases in the 21st century have been enshrouded by legend quite like Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which etched its place in pop-culture lore a full seven months prior to its official release in April of 2002. Since then, the drama-rich tale of how Wilco made their fourth proper full-length has been recounted via myriad sources—filmmaker Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, veteran music critic Greg Kot’s Wilco biography Learning How to Die, bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), and countless takes in the press. 

What else could there possibly be left to learn about an album that’s generated so much commentary in its 20-year lifespan? The answer, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot. With its 85-page hardbound book, the super deluxe anniversary edition sheds ample light on the creation of a modern-art classic. Believe it or not, journalist Bob Mehr (Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements) makes every word count in his sprawling liner notes, which accompany a slew of breathtaking photographs. Even Wilco diehards should expect to view the album from a new perspective, if not multiple angles they hadn’t considered. 

Mehr and reissue producer Cheryl Pawelski uncover copious insights via exclusive interviews with Tweedy, drummer Ken Coomer, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, bassist John Stirratt, engineer Jim O’Rourke, and engineer Jonathan Pines, along with archival quotes from late guitarist Jay Bennett—none of whom shy away from the more uncomfortable details. (Even 9/11 plays a significant role late in the story.) Coupled with the lavish art direction, the hardcover book makes for the perfect coffee-table addition, arguably worth the price of admission on its own. 

The liner notes—along with four discs’ worth of works in progress—reveal that there were at least two wildly divergent albums that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could have become. Because Wilco, from 1999 to 2001, accumulated hour upon hour of recorded exploration in their then-newly built loft space, and because the process was rife with tension on multiple levels, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proves to be bottomless in terms of the fascination it provokes. As for the music itself, there’s a lot to digest here, for better or worse. It’s hard to imagine any fan, no matter how devoted, ingesting all of these alternate versions, sketches, and creative meanderings with the same ease as the main course. 

Conversely, it’s hard to imagine any fan not finding at least something in the heap of extras that lends depth to their appreciation of the record. The good news is that the bulk of the bonus material has never been released. One caveat to keep in mind is that there’s a difference between listening for enjoyment and listening to reconstruct the way a work of art came together. At times, this package feels like an archeological dig. Regardless of one’s individual song preferences, the bonus discs can be labor-intensive to get through in a single sitting, with track sequences that don’t always appear to have been guided by a sense of what would be most listenable. 

An outtake, for example, that segues into the electronic beat of “Heavy Metal Drummer”—abruptly fading out before yet another version of “Heavy Metal Drummer” starts up—could have been massaged so as not to derail the thrill of the moment. On the other hand, getting to hear tunes like “Poor Places”, “Kamera”, and others at multiple stages in their development gives us a sense of just how profoundly this material—and the direction of the album as a whole—shifted over time. Meanwhile, “Venus Stop the Train” and “American Aquarium” capture Wilco early in the process, with the Beatles-isms from the previous album Summerteeth still very much in their system. 

Of course, Wilco ended up light years away from where we hear them starting on the first disc of extras. When the dust settled, the world was left with a singular, mysterious work that combined beauty and foreboding, nostalgia and futurism, and tunefulness with abstraction. The truth is that the finished record, as we’ve known it all these years was more than fine as-is—it didn’t require a remastering job. Fortunately, mastering engineers Bob Ludwig and Chris Bellman took a tasteful approach with their respective treatments of the digital and vinyl editions. Certainly, the radio appearance on Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis’s Sound Opinions program, as well as a complete live set from St. Louis (the band’s unofficial birthplace), capture a pivotal time in Wilco’s history. 

Compared to earlier Wilco back-catalog reissues, however, this beefed-up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot suffers somewhat from a case of “more isn’t always more”. Still, it was inevitable that we would get more this time. Most likely, no two people tasked with cutting through the thicket of material the band amassed during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would agree on what to keep versus what to cut. Even if they did, arranging it all into an order that flows would be daunting indeed. When all is said and done, this is a record that will have people talking about it into perpetuity. At the very least, it’s clear that Cheryl Pawelski, Wilco, and everyone involved made an honorable attempt to do its legacy justice.

RATING 7 / 10