Sky Blue Sky
There is talk of a comeback, but really, soft rock never went away. The doughy eye of its practice still stares longingly through the Vaseline lens of fashion, its sly tentacles embracing every trend: techno, indie, alt-country, folk music, pulling them into the deep. I never realized that soft rock ruled the world until I found myself surrounded by its acolytes. I made the mistake of mentioning aloud to a group of friends how much I truly hated Steely Dan, which I not only thought them terrible, but dangerous to culture, and even the crustiest cock-rocker in my circle was aghast at my failure to recognize their brilliance. I was shocked - soft rock is the ruler of all, and some law of softening muso-dynamics decrees that all things eventually lead to a soft rock state, even Wilco.
I'd heard The Dan mentioned when Wilco's name was being repeatedly carved on the temple walls in a different font for each incarnation: rope letters for AM, meticulous designer fonts for Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a neat electrified scratch for A Ghost is Born. For me, I would spray-paint Being There over all of them. It was the first Wilco album I bought, and in my eyes, still their best. It has clever songwriting, tender ballads, excellent bar rock and a couple cantankerous rackety epics at either end. Much like Ryan Adams with Heartbreaker, I kept hanging my hopes on them making another Being There, but it appears they may never will. The closest they've gotten to Being There's circle around Thin Lizzy is Sky Blue Sky's variant on the Eagles.
The thing is, Wilco has taken what's good about the Eagles, and there are a couple good things, and distilled them into a liquor on their latest romp. The arcweldings of Nels Cline that got all the guitar nerds unseasonably excited has given way to a bountiful, hushed harvest of sound. (See what I did? The sly Neil Young references? Did you catch those? No? I guess no one has ever thrown out a sly Neil Young reference, even Wilco) Also removed are Jeff Tweedy's mellifluous oblique lyrical outer coating, revealing a pained honesty and openness that won me over with Being There. All of it rendered at a carnival pony-ride hazy lope. I understand it took a massive intake of drugs to get the collected egos of Henley and Frey to pen the best of their love. I guess it took Tweedy getting off them to get there himself.
"Impossible Germany" tiptoes out the gate with instant melancholy, a twinkling underbelly of sadness from the guitars mixed with Tweedy's musing on love lost and unattainable interlaced throughout. The star of this show is the subtle double guitar leads that come in at the 2:56 mark. It sounds like its coming out the single speaker of the transistor radio of my imagined youth. "Sky Blue Sky" veers back to more Wilco-ish territory, with the sashay sing song folk. I saw Jeff Tweedy play solo in New Orleans a while back, and I think in a solo setting, you can more readily hear the songs, hear who is as a songwriter than you can in his albums, which lean (including this one) toward studio magic.
"Shake it Off" starts off with that Quaalude Tin Pan Alley lousiness that mars a lot of 70s singer songwriter material and gets to the point of white-man cocaine funk by the middle and then falls into his repetition thing. It's like a classic rock block all in one tidy song. Like "Comfortably Numb" but not all that comfortable. Fortunately, the plaintive side emerges on "Please Be Patient with Me" a plea for those around him to deal with him dealing with himself. Its one of the more honest songs he's put out there, and one of the more successful inductees into the Post-Rehab Ballad Hall of Fame. "Hate it Here" sounds all the world like John Lennon piano lament, offering up the million of things he's trying to make amends for bad behavior. "Keeping things clean, doesn't change anything." His cocky vulnerability is delicious on this record.
Let us pretend that this is a lost slab of thrift store vinyl (like it wants us to) and flip to side two. "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" is like an apology for the yin and yang of the pervious songs, still standing forthright in his opinion that he is being the best Jeff Tweedy he can be. "Walken" is as close as we get to a rocker on this record, a lurching hokey piano honky-tonk number that makes me think of a while back when I was listening to Lynyrd Skynrd's first record on the way back from the store, and during one moment during the colliding excesses in "Gimme Three Steps" all of a sudden, I had it. I saw it floating in the air before me, and as I reached out for it, it slipped away like Linda Lou on that dance floor, and I was stuck with that cornball rinky dink. I've come to believe that musicians have terrible taste in music, and while I find this song miles better than "Gimme Three Steps" (blasphemous words in these parts) it drinks form the same well. I get moments where I can feel it, and them its slips away.
"What Light" sounds like a lost track from what everyone begrudgingly hails as Tweedy's best material - the interpretations of Woody Guthrie lyrics for the Mermaid Avenue records. Much like "California Stars" and "Hesitating Beauty" it's among one of his simplest, and most pleasurable songs. "On and On and On" is a bit of surprise, a decidedly modern diversion - his lyrics delivered over a hushed minimalist pulse with organ and a cozy bass line. It's a quiet, background song that sticks out because of its relative simplicity compared to rest of the material, building to a cinematic crescendo. Its rather glorious actually, like the moments I kept waiting for in the motorik excursions on A Ghost is Born. "Either Way" brings us back down to bottom soil, laying the rug out for the easy shuffle of "You Are My Face" to take us out with a rather decent David Gilmour impression on the part of their guitar battalion.
So where does this leave us? Wilco is one of those bands I feel "classic" feelings about, like they are one of the few bands of this sorry little patch of the timeline that will matter thirty years from now when the same stuff is being rehashed over again, and the seventh Nick Drake resurgence will be upon us, encouraging thousands to try out alternative acoustic guitar tunings in allegiance, and thousands more to dress like the androids in Blade Runner and worship their drum machines in protest. I feel like they write great material, but their records are increasingly falling into the chasm that most sanctioned artists' records fall - ones where you catch yourself saying "OK that is cheesy" a lot. I think what I'm starting to grasp is the power of soft rock. Much like the cheese to which it is unfavorably compared, soft rock is also taking the raw materials and letting them settle, commingle and congeal, forming their own distinctive complex flavors. I took up the challenge of listening to Steely Dan with the freshest ears I could muster after finding out everyone around me loved them and found some of the genius the masses laud. I still don't like them, but I understand them a little more. And if Wilco is the new Steely Dan, a kinder, more personable variant strain, I must relent that I am a soft rock fan, and all thereby must recognize the sun that shines out of The Eagles and the Dan and Supertramp and whatever long dismissed has-beens that my peers love and I have long Quixotically jousted. This latest Wilco album is great, and with its greatness comes the tearing down of yet another barrier, another wall toppled by the soft rock battering ram.
I still hate ELO though. I'm not conceding on that one.
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