Wilco (the Album)
If there is such a thing as reliable strategies for success in the music business, Wilco didn't follow any of them. Form a solid stylistic identity? Wilco's modern output couldn't be farther from the songs on their debut. Appease the label? They got dropped by their label and resold their most acclaimed record to one of its siblings. Tighten leaks? Wilco puts their records free online weeks before release. Pretty boy front man? Jeff Tweedy is looking more like Neil Young each passing year. Wilco has seemingly done everything wrong and yet, they are the very model of a little band that made it.
Wilco (the Album) is an appropriately defining bracket for what the scrappy little band has become. Instead of an Americana act or indie rock staple of anything, Wilco the Album documents a band that is progressing right on its own schedule. The opening track "Wilco (the song)" borrows its lilt from the unsinkable "Werewolves of London" while ironically offering nothing in the way of transformation. The song has the sense of being a here's who-we-are, fuck our enemies boast, but instead it asks the listener "Are you being attacked?" "Are times getting tough?" offering the only thing a pop song really can offer: solace. "Wilco will love you, baby."
It's unclear who precisely the you is, for Wilco (the Album) contains some of the band's most soaring and accessible material to date. "One Wing" is strident love ballad that practically gallops on horseback across the beach to you when it gets its stride. "You and I" puts Tweedy in a swoony soft rock duet with Feist, soft and plush as Fleetwood Mac without the divorce tensions. "Oh, I don't need to know everything about you" he proclaims, a floodwall catching the brunt of the song's sentimental tide, allowing the protagonists to swim instead of drown. "You Never Know" could be a Beach Boys song, for better or worse.
The modern Wilco is contents under pressure, but that pressure is closely monitored. Wild man guitarist Nels Cline makes the most out of his moments of feral alchemy in most of the songs, spirits swirling in a tightly constructed chemistry array so as to produce the desired results. Wilco feels about as dangerous as cozy suburban library branch any more, but like that library, within its walls lay a comprehensive and powerful energy.
"Bull Black Nova" is a valve where that energy is carefully vented. It starts with a pointillist shudder that demonstrates the tension in the tanks, releasing its multi-guitar complicated melodies in bursts when the time is right, setting the stream ablaze at the end. It's a dazzling thing to behold; one that makes you feel is in the hands of experts.
So I've given up on my dream of Wilco taking to the studio for a weekend and slamming out a straight-to-tape garage, bar band epic. They are just not that band. On Sky Blue Sky, Tweedy got his lyrical footing back, and while the songs here do not subscribe to its literal clarity, he's just not big on the screaming anymore. "I'll Fight" instead finds Tweedy boasting of his devotion to that you against a sweet wistful soul lilt. "Sunny Feeling" may be taken away, as the song proclaims in the chorus, but Wilco replaces it in full with rich vocal harmonies and spot-on summer festival dynamics, only to finish off this declaration of self with the swelling lullaby "Everlasting." What compels this band to keep innovating and honing its sound is not the endless self-exploration that is the impetus for most rock bands. It's not to see how far they can push their talents. It's not to see how close they can get to tearing themselves apart. It's not even to sell records. Wilco does it, apparently, because they love you, baby.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com