I meant to write this yesterday.
I had the time all blocked off, honestly, two hours right before the new-ish West Wing documentary episode. Plenty of time. I sat at the computer, I poured myself a glass of iced tea, and I pressed “play” for my third listen-through of this week’s musical work.
And 52 minutes later, having written not one word, I pressed “play” again.
I’ve just now finished my seventh go-round with this disc, and I’m prepared to say that Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the kind of album that seduces your attention. While it’s playing, it’s practically impossible to concentrate on anything else, and it’s such an enveloping and satisfying experience that you don’t mind at all when it hijacks your senses for the better part of an hour.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shipped to stores this week complete with a set of expectations no album should have to overcome. It’s best known as the album Reprise Records deemed too “musically adventurous” to release, cutting the band free from its contract rather than suffer the indignity of associating themselves with the record. With one fell swoop Yankee became the stuff of legends, and Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy a champion for artistic expression free from interference.
Most of the curiosity surrounding Yankee sprung from the ferocity with which Tweedy fought for the album. It took the band the better part of the following year to secure the rights to their album, negotiate another deal and ensure that this record was released untouched. If Yankee was indeed the mess the folks at Reprise seemed to think it was, why would Tweedy dedicate himself so thoroughly to preserving it as if it were a national monument?
The short, simple answer is that the record company was wrong, utterly and completely. The bootleg copies that exist attest to the fact that the Reprise reps heard the same Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that we’re hearing now, and given that, their knee-jerk response is totally amazing. And, considering that it delayed the release of such a superb work for more than eight months, nearly unforgivable. Tweedy was right to fight for this album, right to refuse to compromise a single note.
Interestingly, Yankee has been released on Nonesuch Records, which, like Reprise, is a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Which, of course, means that the geniuses at AOL/Time Warner paid for this album twice. A few more decisions like that might go a long way towards explaining the company’s $54 billion net loss this quarter…
But enough about the record company. Let’s talk about the record.
Ever since Wilco split off from alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s, Jeff Tweedy has been working towards this, a union of American roots music, British pop and modern art-rock. The elements were all there on Wilco’s second album, the double-disc Being There, but they were separated out. The band’s third, Summerteeth, brought them crashing together in an adventurous and uneven effort, which concentrated more on studio craft than song craft in places.
While many derided Summerteeth for straying too far off the beaten path, it was merely a dress rehearsal for Yankee. Far less musically adventurous than their last in ways, Yankee takes a group of simple, elegant songs and dresses them up in swirling Technicolor. The songs exist separately, but hang together as a gentle suite, and the transitions between songs have been crafted with as much care as the songs themselves. It’s the roots-rock OK Computer.
The opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” is the mission statement. At first listen, it sounds like absolute chaos. Drums crash, guitars whine, percussion flourishes abound, and piano riffs flit in and out of nowhere. In truth, though, the song is grounded by the simplest of melodies, the most elemental of chord progressions. The song’s lyrics describe the indecisive nature of the violently insecure protagonist, unable to see the simple truths beneath the whirling debris of his mind, and the sonic coloring illustrates that whirling debris and simple truth perfectly.
Yankee juxtaposes disparate styles throughout, like the perfect pop of “Kamera” easing into the melancholy masterpiece “Radio Cure,” and then into the rave-up “War on War,” but it does so with such ease and grace that the differences barely register. Like OK Computer, it works best swallowed whole – the blazing conclusion to the horn-driven stomper “I’m the Man Who Loves You” doesn’t have the same effect unless it’s followed by the low-key acoustic opening of “Pot Kettle Black,” just to name one instance.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was supposed to have been released in July of last year, two months before the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen. What’s doubly amazing about this album is that despite it having been written and recorded months previous, the specter of September 11 is all over it. Just start with the cover photo of two gleaming gray towers, and then move to the lyrics, especially the tough “War on War,” with its refrain of, “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive.” “Jesus, Etc.” seems to directly reference the attack and its aftermath: “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs…”
At its heart, both musically and lyrically, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is about finding beauty from chaos, a sentiment that captures, better than anything released since, the state of mind immediately following September 11. Every time the band latches onto a gorgeous melody, it seems to devolve into mass hysteria, but then, like string shafts of light breaking through, the next bit of beauty takes off. Those bits of beauty are often accompanied by lyrics that hearken back to more innocent times, or that strive for inner strength in the midst of catastrophe.
With the push and pull of beauty and chaos that infuses the record, Tweedy seemingly had a choice when it came time to end the album, and thankfully, he chose beauty. “Reservations” makes the best use of his world-beaten voice, telling a tale of love amidst the ruins: “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you…” The album ends with a sublime three-minute piano coda that feels like the sun setting on a whole new world.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a brave and glorious album about being scared to death, about yearning for simplicity and dealing with complexity. Far from being a work of rampant experimentalism, it maintains a perfect balance and draws the listener in like few albums can. Kudos to Tweedy for seeing it for what it is, and being courageous enough to fight for it. Hearing it now, nearly nine months after its originally scheduled release, it’s clear that this album was worth every second of the wait, and every ounce of effort it took to bring it into being.
See you in line Tuesday morning.