I have a complex relationship with Wilco.
I’m not sure how much of it is me, and how much is them. I don’t give star ratings on my reviews, but if I did, Wilco’s catalog would have seen the full range – 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have received five stars, and 2004’s A Ghost is Born would have been slapped with one, or none. Depending on how my hypothetical rating system might work, of course. I have loved them, I have loathed them, I have been indifferent towards them, I have held them up as shining examples of greatness.
If I think about it, only someone like Tori Amos provokes similar reactions in me. And I’m not sure why this ragtag group of tradition-minded rockers brings out such emotions. It’s not territorialism, since Chicago is my adopted home, and my strongest opinions of Wilco were formed before I moved here. I was never an Uncle Tupelo fan – I caught up with them later – so I had no preconceived notions of how Jeff Tweedy’s post-Tupelo project was supposed to sound, or why his later railing against those notions was significant.
But the strong feelings, they are there. So I greeted news of Wilco’s seventh disc, cheekily titled Wilco (The Album), with a mix of dread and curiosity. The album hits shops less than two months after the overdose death of Jay Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist who added immeasurably to Wilco’s terrific early records. Bennett’s death, to me, was the sound of a door slamming – Tweedy hasn’t been the same since Bennett left the band, after the making of Foxtrot, and now we’ll never know if they could have patched things up, both personally and musically.
That said, the more recent six-piece iteration of Wilco is fantastic, at least on paper. Guitar genius Nels Cline is in the band now, as is pianist Mikael Jorgensen and renaissance man Pat Sansone, all superb musicians. Live, they are a force to be reckoned with, as you can hear on the dazzling concert document Kicking Television (and see on last year’s live DVD Ashes of American Flags). But in the studio, they somehow lose all of that verve and fire. I snoozed my way through 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, barely making it all the way through more than once.
After the twin disappointments of Ghost and Sky, I was pretty much done. But then Tweedy hooked me again by penning the funniest, sprightliest song of his career. Last October, Wilco appeared on The Colbert Report, and debuted “Wilco (The Song).” It’s half advertisement and half celebration, pivoting around the terrific line “Wilco will love you, baby.” It was a self-referential joke, but a great one, and a simply wonderful little ditty to boot. And then I heard that “Wilco (The Song)” would lead off the band’s new record, and that it would be called Wilco (The Album), and well, I was in.
Just to seal the deal, the album cover features a camel in a party hat. I’ll repeat that: a camel in a party hat. Add all that jocularity up, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating a fun-loving little rock record, inventive and sparkling and all that good stuff. But no. Wilco is exactly the kind of middling, lazy, flimsy, half-hearted effort I’ve grown to expect from Jeff Tweedy at this point in his career. It’s not just that the rest of the record doesn’t pick up the gauntlet thrown down by “Wilco (The Song),” it’s that it doesn’t even try.
I don’t know about you, but I can only go a couple of years with this sort of thing before I start reassessing my relationship with a band. I heard Wilco (The Album) once, then twice, then decided to hop in the Tardis for a trip through their discography, trying to figure out where the rot set in. Is it me, or is it them? Have they changed, or have I? I wanted to find out.
I said before that I didn’t have preconceived notions about Wilco, but that’s not entirely true – I did completely avoid picking up the band’s debut, A.M., for years because of a single review. Of course, that review ran in Face, the magazine I worked for at the time, and was penned by Rob Comorosky, easily the funniest and most cynical writer on our payroll. I believe he dismissed it, and all country-flavored music, by calling it the soundtrack to a satisfying evening spent sodomizing Ned Beatty. I seem to recall the adjectives “slack-jawed” and “hayseed” in there, too.
So the first Wilco album I picked up was Being There, their double-disc sophomore effort. (Double albums, one of my peculiar weaknesses…) I liked it then, and I like it now, despite a couple of weak moments. It is Wilco’s Exile on Main Street, an extended blues-folk-rock excursion that pushes at the limits of all three styles. It also includes “Say You Miss Me,” one of Tweedy’s finest ballads. As good as it is, you can feel the band bursting at the seams here, aching to try new things.
But let’s back up first. As much as I liked Being There this time around, I was stunned at how much I enjoyed A.M. This is a shit-kicking country rock record, through and through, but it has serious swagger, and songs like “Casino Queen” crackle with an energy you just don’t hear from Tweedy and company any more. Comorosky may consider this backwoods yokel music, but it’s pretty swell stuff from where I’m sitting.
Wilco left those pastures behind for good on 1999’s Summerteeth, an album I liked more this time through than I ever have. It’s pure pop, when it’s not dabbling in experimental textures, and the melodies Tweedy and Bennett came up with here are the best on any Wilco album. At some points, it sounds like the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, and at others, a Tin Pan Alley throwdown. The pure joy of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” wouldn’t be duplicated until… well, “Wilco (The Song).”
Ah, but then we come to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And it’s the strangest thing – I felt this time through that I may have overrated the record a little bit. It’s still outstanding, but there are weak moments, and I never really keyed in on them until now. Sonically, it remains their finest work – the record rises and falls rhythmically and gracefully, and its high points, particularly “Jesus, Etc.,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and the gorgeous final minutes of “Reservations,” remain moving and extraordinary.
But it’s not the flawless masterpiece my own reviews led me to expect. In particular, the sonic frippery and melodic simplicity of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” grated on me this time, and I found the album as a whole slower going than I remembered. Enough of it is achingly beautiful that it still holds up as the best Wilco album, but I’m reconsidering its place in the canon.
Still, I think I can definitively trace the decline to A Ghost is Born. Lifeless, listless, self-indulgent, boring, endless – Ghost is all these things and more. It is Wilco’s Kid A, an album of sonic exploration with very few actual songs to prop it up. I forced myself to sit through the 12 minutes of formless, ridiculous noise at the end of “Less Than You Think,” but I promise you, it’s the last time I will do so. There is no reason for this album to last nearly 70 minutes. It is the nadir of Tweedy’s career, and the surest sign that without Bennett, he was lost.
But lo and behold, I think I may have underrated Sky Blue Sky – I ended up enjoying it more than I expected this time. The new six-man Wilco rocked convincingly on the Kicking Television live album the year before, and I guess I expected more in that vein. What I got was a breezy nothing of a record, simple and pretty. It’s the least ambitious thing Tweedy has done in a long time, but on this trip through, I found that to be a plus. It’s nowhere near as good as Summerteeth or Yankee, but nowhere near as bad as I originally thought.
It is, however, complacent, which makes it a good primer for the new album. Wilco has settled into a comfortable groove after its rocky beginnings and growing pains, and my bet is they will never make an album I like as much as Yankee again. Theoretically, the sextet version of Wilco should be able to knock the socks off of earlier lineups, producing a fuller sound and more energetic interplay. Theoretically. But the results so far have been surprisingly lightweight.
So it goes on Wilco (The Album). Leaving aside the sort-of-title-track, the record actually starts strong, with the ebbing and flowing “Deeper Down” and the pretty “One Wing.” We’re in Sky Blue Sky territory again, but it’s not bad. But then we get the nearly unlistenable drone of “Bull Black Nova” (not quite as self-indulgent as “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” but close), and from there, it’s one letdown after another.
Ballad “You and I,” a duet between Tweedy and Leslie Feist, is so featherweight it almost doesn’t exist. It’s one of those songs Paul Simon would have written during his There Goes Rhymin’ Simon period, lame major-key folk that dissipates in the air. “You Never Know” has a cool ‘60s melody and some George Harrison moments, but it’s also inconsequential, and both “Country Disappeared” and “Solitaire” are so boring I don’t even remember them.
Things pick up near the end – “I’ll Fight” has a nice little melody, and the amps actually get switched on for “Sonny Feeling,” before being shoved off the stage for piano-ballad closer “Everlasting Everything.” And that song is pretty good. It has an actual chorus, at least, and some nice textures. But it’s too little too late. The vast majority of Wilco (The Album) is bland, wishy-washy, forgettable stuff. I bet it will come to life on stage, but here, it barely wakes up.
Which is a shame, because “Wilco (The Song)” is ten kinds of wonderful, and is worth hearing on its own. The studio version is a bit noisier than other versions I’ve heard, but the feel-good celebratory atmosphere is preserved intact. And I can’t stop singing it. “Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby…” It’s one of my favorite songs of 2009, kicking off one of my biggest disappointments of the year so far.
That’s not really true, though, because I’ve stopped expecting to like Wilco albums. I don’t enjoy being in this place – I want to like this, not least because I’ve invested a lot into Tweedy and his band, and I don’t want to feel like buying new Wilco albums is an obligation instead of a pleasure. This is the third one in a row that I haven’t felt inspired by, however, and at some point, you just have to call it. I want to love you, Wilco. But you keep trying to break my heart.
Next week, I’m on vacation, but I’ll have something for you anyway. A little Michael Roe, and a little Violet Burning, perhaps. Comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.