Counterbalance No. 71: Wilco – ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Mendelsohn: Klinger, I’ve never been able to make a connection with Wilco, and I don’t know why. I have nothing against their music; in fact, given a choice, I’d pick Wilco over most other listening experiences. I liked the entire week I spent getting reacquainted with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but it’s not an album I found myself reaching for in the past, and I doubt that will change going into the future.

When we got to this album, I think my reaction was something along the lines of, “Wilco’s
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is number 71 on the Great List? I guess that makes sense.” I also remember being happy that it wasn’t another Bob Dylan album. Anything in particular on this album you want to talk about? If nothing else, it does have an interesting back story.

Klinger: I’m not 100% sure how you manage to listen to Wilco relatively often without forming a connection to it, but I’m sure that will become clear as we go along here. As for me, I was a big fan of Jeff Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band, Uncle Tupelo, and I remember finding it odd that their split led two solid bands, instead of two lousy bands or one good band and one lousy band—it’s a true rarity in the rock world.

At any rate, I drifted away from Wilco in the early part of the ’00s—apparently the worst possible time to lose touch, as by all accounts they were delivering their career-defining masterpiece with
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Classic Klinger timing. So I had a glancing familiarity with many of the songs on the album because I was a college-educated middle-class white male, aged 30-39, and it was a demographic requirement. But very seldom have I settled in for a listen. Now that we’re forcing ourselves to listen to the greatest albums of all time as per the Great List, I can say that I regret having lost touch. This is a terrific album.

But I’m sorry for interrupting. Were you saying something about a back story?

Mendelsohn: Apparently, Wilco’s record label Reprise, who was owned by Time Warner, didn’t like this album and pretty much dropped Wilco from their roster. At which point Wilco negotiated some buyout that included the master tapes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The band decided to post the record on their website where it got some rave reviews and led to them signing with Nonesuch, which, oddly enough, is also part of Time Warner. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot then went on to be Wilco’s highest-selling and most critically-acclaimed record.

There was also a bunch of interband strife between lead singer Jeff Tweedy and longtime member Jay Bennett, resulting in Bennett leaving the band after the record was finished. Plus some health issues that Tweedy was dealing with. This is all laid out in the documentary
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco—or you can just go read about it, because I’m paraphrasing what turned out to be quite the ordeal for a band trying to release what would turn about to be one of the best albums of the decade.

An album, by the way, that I missed as well. When this record hit, I was in the highly sought-after 18-29 demographic. But while you had been following Wilco and then stopped paying attention, I was too busy pretending to be a DJ and listening to nothing but house music for three straight years. So when my friend gave me a copy of this record, I listened to it, thought it was nice, and then dropped the needle on something in the 130 BPM range because I had a mix to finish. Subsequent Wilco releases also met with about the same result, although
Sky Blue Sky did hit my rotation for almost a month straight before something better came along. My inability to connect with Wilco has more to do with bad timing for on my part than anything else because every time they released a record I was too busy doing something else.

Klinger: Yes, Time Warner paid for the same record twice. And they wonder why their industry collapsed. It might also explain why my cable bill went up. But I think that the more telling part of this album’s story is the increasingly fractious relationship between Tweedy and Bennett. Because I maintain that in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco created a “White Album” for a new era. Much like the Beatles’ 1968 double LP, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is built on the back of a faltering partnership, and there’s a sense of heavy-lidded dissolution that permeates nearly every song on the album. The group shifts the mood from breezy light to downright ominous in the blink of an eye, often within the same song. You’ll hear it all in a song like “Poor Places”, which starts off with loosely-strummed chords and mumbly vocals, then snaps into place with a poppy piano melody before the creepy “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” lady kicks in and the whole thing disintegrates into the second coming of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”.

But even with all that, there remains a true pop sensibility at the heart of the album. Tweedy’s laconic vocals may obscure the melodies that are here, and the feedback and general noodlery might be a misdirection, but the chord changes don’t lie—there are some pop gems buried deep within the mix here. Not every track is as immediately hooky as “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but it’s never far from the surface. Without Bennett, Tweedy seemed to have a hard time replicating that sensibility, which helps explain why follow-up
A Ghost Is Born is so much more of a downer.

Mendelsohn: I like that analogy. If I start to think about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a Pile like the “White Album”, it makes much more sense and becomes less of a blind spot. Because, when you get right down to it, I should love this album—it has the right amount of indie rock licks, and those pop hooks you describe are right up my alley. But even with all that, I still can’t forge a connection with Wilco, and it can’t all be bad timing. It wasn’t until you mentioned Tweedy’s laconic approach to singing that it finally dawned on me—I can’t connect with Wilco because I find his vocal approach kind of boring. Going back through the record, I keep waiting for him to let loose behind the mic—just a little bit— but he never does. I guess if I had a pounding headache, I probably wouldn’t want to sing much above a whisper either. But pick up a song like “War on War”—there is so much pep in its step and then Tweedy’s vocal kick in and I’m suddenly totally underwhelmed. It could be a completely different song with a little bit of a shout, but then we’d have to start talking about changing the core composition of this very fine album, and were not really here to do that, are we?

Klinger: No, we’re just here to make sense of the vagaries of the Critical Industrial Complex and how their consensus has created the canon of pop music. And Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s presence here on the Great List is self-evident. Here we have a group that more than paid its dues, had come dangerously close to mainstream success, and was in the process of making a monkey of a multinational corporation. Add to that internal strife, a debilitating addiction to painkillers (since overcome), and the group’s questing desire to move beyond its alt-country roots, and you’ve got an album that might as well have been named The Most Acclaimed Album of 2002.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t quite the Pile that the “White Album” is (and readers, do keep in mind that we use the term “Pile” in all Christian love). For one thing, it’s far more concise—the ideas zip in and out not from song to song, but from moment to moment. But there’s a spookiness in the pop hooks and pop hooks in the spookiness—and a general sense of surprisingly beautiful malaise—that puts me in the mind of that darkest of Beatles albums. But I think Tweedy’s voice serves as an effective throughline for the album, enabling it to sustain the mood regardless of what the song does. You find it unaffecting, but I doubt that, say, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” would be improved if Tweedy would start belting it out.

Mendelsohn: Well maybe not on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. Tweedy’s sleepy, slippery, flat-line delivery works well between the noodlery and drummery structure of that song. But while it works so well in some places, I still maintain a little bit of emotion would go a long way in other places. I know you think Tweedy’s delivery works to sustain a straight line through the album, but at times it seems to be more of an anchor, weighing the album down when the song seems to want to take off. Not that it matters: as you noted, this record is firmly entrenched as the best thing to come out of 2002, and over the years Wilco has done little to diminish their reputation as forward-thinking rockers for a new generation.