Wilco resumes the search for sound on 'The Whole Love'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Sound, obviously, is what differentiates great songwriters from great recording artists. Great songs have a life of their own, but played through speakers, certain flourishes (or lack thereof) can give a song a kind of haunting immortality. Muffled vocal mics, distant computer tones, treated guitars, distinct but unintrusive bass, there are a number of tricks that, tastefully done, can give a song that special breath.
Jeff Tweedy, unsurprisingly, has written another brilliant group of songs for Wilco’s eighth record, The Whole Love. What is a bit of a turn, though, is that Wilco has gone back to looking for not the great rendition, but the great recording — the unique collaboration of writing and sound.
What gives The Whole Love that added kick is that, finally, Wilco has delivered an album worthy of being the successor to 2005’s A Ghost Is Born. Not to say that it follows that album's moods or patterns but, unlike the collaborative playing of Sky Blue Sky, The Whole Love finds a band trying to make sounds they’ve never made before. Rather than just skillfully attempting to play a song as written, they find the nooks and crannies that can only be uncovered through experimentation.
That restless search for new sounds that began with 1996’s Being There and continued on through A Ghost Is Born slowed as the band focused on craft, creating more songs that erred to safety rather than the sublime.
The Whole Love, then, has Wilco sifting back through their bag of tricks, pulling out new trinkets and tricks. It’s obvious right away, on a seven-minute excursion through “Art of Almost” that plays like the better moments of latter-day Sonic Youth. As was the hallmark of Wilco’s best music, this sounds like nothing that had come from the band before. It’s artistic, it’s muted and it’s daring, and to send the record off and running with this track is nothing short of bold. Wilco is antsy again, and they’re not about to hide their experiments on Side 2.
The lead single, “I Might,” is propelled by a raw acoustic guitar and a fuzzed-out bass line. In the past few years, a song like “Dawned on Me” might have been happily left as an easy rocker that was tightened rather than developed. But in the spirit of this record, there are little touches and flourishes that leave it better suited for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot than Sky Blue Sky. There are surprises. There are surprises popping up all through the record.
Even moreso than “Art of Almost,” that spirit of discovery through experimentation is best on display on “One Sunday Morning.” Through 12 minutes of plaintive meditation and changes that are subtle rather than abrupt, Tweedy and the band craft a gentle, swaying tale, perhaps a worthy heir to Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” all these years later. For such a mellow tempo, its running time breezes by, the singer growing more and more weary as it goes.
"This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long."
The Whole Love occasionally takes its time. Sometimes it rocks, sometimes it sways, and sometimes it lulls. But always, through each track, through its decisions and executions in sound, it moves.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org