Wilco (the band) let their experimental side show
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
This is a pivotal moment for Wilco, the band.
They have just released a new album, their seventh full-length feature, and they could define themselves for the remainder of their career. Are they going to be a trailblazing band, cutting down genres and expectations and blazing a trail that could potentially be followed for decades, or are they going to be, you know, a pretty good band?
On Sky Blue Sky, the band’s 2007 album, they seemed content with just being a pretty good band, one that writes nice songs and puts on a good show. But, thankfully, their new record, Wilco (the album), they seem interested in making major creative statements again. And it’s a very important step, as it shows that the last record was a workshop diversion, not a declaration of a new direction and focus.
Save for the sonic beauty of “Impossible Germany,” the majority of Sky Blue Sky doesn’t necessarily hold up to the rest of the Wilco cannon. True, that’s an impressive group of records to live up to, but standards are set by the artists themselves, and though the last album was a nice listen, it wasn’t the artistic statement that fans have come to expect.
While Wilco (the album) still doesn’t measure up to the extreme beauty of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born, it succeeds where its predecessor fell short. Basically, they’ve struck a nice balance here, with fun, bliss and agony all meeting to create a series of moods that carry the album. Take “Wilco (the song),” for instance. They haven’t written a song packed full of pure fun like this in years. It’s bouncy, it’s catchy, and it’s tongue-in-cheek chorus, an ode to having your favorite band lift your spirits, burrows itself deep into the listener’s skull.
Most heartening is getting to hear the band push the sonic envelope again. Perhaps the retirement of collaborator and guru Jim O’Rourke from music was to blame for Wilco’s seeming abandonment of experimentation, but it’s still hard to believe that Jeff Tweedy and company were so quick to leave that side of their art in the dust. Without that wild side, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born would have just been nice records instead of revolutionary ones.
That spirit back on this album, though, and is best displayed on “Bull Black Nova.” It is heavy, dissonant and dynamic, and its lyrics are disconnected and paranoid — it would sound right at home with the most extreme tracks on A Ghost Is Born. Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline shred, while the keyboards drop in and out, all building to the song’s destruction.
Tweedy’s distant lyrics are in fine form here, as well. Take “Country Disappeared,” where he takes the weather metaphor to an extreme, only to pull it back to a personal place at the last minute:
With the winter trees bleeding leaf red blood
And the summer sweet dreaming April blush
But none of that is ever going to mean as much
to me again
He’s a little mysterious, but not to the point where he can’t be somewhat decoded. It’s not crystal clear, it’s interesting. Musically, it’s not the most challenging song ever, but this is one instance where the lyrics step up and provide all the intrigue necessary.
This is not a totally experimental set, though. There are light moments that break up the noise (and I call it “noise” with only complete fondness). For example, there’s “You and I,” which features indie darling Feist on vocals with Tweedy. Would this song have fit on Sky Blue Sky? Most definitely. But the variety displayed on this album serves songs like this well, working like a ray of light breaking through the cloud cover.
And, perhaps that’s what makes this album so much more effective than the last one. The last album was a day at the beach: nice, pleasant, enjoyable and, ultimately, forgettable. On this record, there are surprise showers, thunderstorms, even a freak hail storm here and there, with sunshine peeking through constant shifts in weather fronts. Sometimes you need a coat, and sometimes just a t-shirt, though it’s hard to tell what’s coming next.
Wilco’s at its best when it’s deceptive. Here, the band dodges and ducks, throwing sand in the listener’s eyes, and each song features a new direction. Not content with just being a pretty good band, they show their manic side in an effort to say more than they have. Some folks might call that disjointed. I call it brilliant.