Do I Disappoint You?
Wainwright and Wilco Diminish Their Returns

I get a surprising amount of grief for the positive bent of this column.

I honestly get letters all the time asking for more negative reviews, from people who apparently believe that all the music coming out these days is crap and deserves to be slated. I got one the other week that started like this: “Is there anything you don’t like?”

The answer is, of course there is. But here’s the thing, the guiding philosophy behind it all: I love music. I don’t want to hate anything I buy, because I’m not buying it as a critic, but as a music fan. I want to enjoy every single CD I plunk down my cash for. Given how many records I buy on a weekly basis, I know that’s an impossible expectation. But I never greet the inevitable moments of crushing disappointment with glee. I don’t want any music to suck, and I’d rather praise something to the skies than tear it down, honestly.

I’ve learned over the years not to expect too much from artists, especially ones with only one or two albums under their belts. I loved the first Click Five album, for the very same sugary-sweet qualities that turned a lot of people off, but I won’t be too sad if the second one (Modern Minds and Pastimes, out June 26) isn’t very good. New singer Kyle Patrick isn’t as charismatic as Eric Dill, and the single, “Jenny,” isn’t a patch on the power pop gems on that first album. But I want it to be great, and I’ll buy it hoping that it is.

It’s the established artists that inevitably end up making my heart sink. There’s nothing quite like following a promising artist as he or she delivers on that promise, and then follows up with a limp effort that just lies there. I’m left wondering just what happened, and who’s to blame for sullying what up until that point had been a sterling catalog. The more good albums an artist makes, the more disappointing a bad one is.

This is all buildup to my thoughts on the new Rufus Wainwright album, Release the Stars, but I don’t want to give the impression that our boy has made a bad record here. It’s actually pretty good, but that’s the thing about being outstanding – you can’t go back to pretty good.

I’ve said this before, but Rufus Wainwright may very well be the best pop songwriter in North America. Some may have difficulty classifying Wainwright’s opulent, dramatic music as pop, but to me it unquestionably is, just like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim are pop. His first two records set the pace, the simple piano and strings of his self-titled debut making way for the brilliant off-Broadway chamber-pop of Poses. At the time, I’d rarely seen an artist improve so much between first record and second, but Wainwright was just getting warmed up.

Released in chapters over two years, Want, Wainwright’s third and fourth albums, painted his flamboyant, fantastic style over a candy-colored sky. It was the most massive, most elaborate, and most artistically successful work of his career thus far, a bright burst of sustained creativity that firmly cemented Wainwright’s place among the greats of his time. It was everything he does well, but bigger and better than it had ever been – he spared no expense, left no stop unpulled, and ended up with a nearly two-hour masterpiece.

So if Want was Wainwright’s Grand Statement, then Release the Stars is just the next day of the rest of his life. Which isn’t bad, but it is a significant comedown.

But it’s very difficult to dislike Wainwright, even when he’s on autopilot. Stars crashes open with “Do I Disappoint You,” a strikingly orchestrated curtain-raiser that carries on in the Want tradition. From there, things take a step back with first single “Going to a Town,” a caustic piece about America that hides its claws beneath lovely rolling piano and subtle strings. It took a while for this song to grow on me, but it has, and I think it’s one of this album’s best.

But elsewhere, Wainwright stumbles, his gift for melody giving way to a meandering style that resists hooks and refuses to stick. “Not Ready to Love” may be the worst, a slow, sometimes (gasp) boring number that lopes along unconvincingly until it dies with a whimper. I like the arrangement of “Slideshow,” but the ascending hook of the chorus is all it has – it’s not a great song. And snoozy groovers like “Tiergarten” and “Rules and Regulations” are nice, but they don’t leave much of an impression.

Ah, but when Rufus is on, he’s spectacular as always. “Nobody’s Off the Hook” is a sweet piano-and-strings piece that makes full use of the dramatic pause. “Leaving for Paris No. 2” is his best ballad this time out, a captivating mourner that, surprisingly, is also the sparsest thing here – just piano, bass and eerie cellos. And “Between My Legs” lives up to the campy naughtiness of the title, with a dazzling overload of guitars and strings bursting at its edges.

Release the Stars may not live up to the bar set by the Want records, but it seems to signify a new beginning for Wainwright. It’s the first album he’s produced himself, and the first one to feature his own string arrangements, which are uniformly wonderful. I get the feeling that this is the first step on a new journey, and in a couple of albums, he’ll be ready to grace us with another adventurous, ambitious work of classic pop wonderment.

I would never steer you away from buying a perfectly acceptable effort like Release the Stars, especially if you’re a fan of Wainwright’s other works. But trust me on this one – if you’ve ever liked Wilco, and you want to keep on liking them as much as you do, then I’d stay as far away from their new album, Sky Blue Sky, as you can.

I like Wilco. I’ve liked Jeff Tweedy since his days in Uncle Tupelo, one of the greatest alt-country bands to ever walk the earth. Right out of the gate, Tweedy’s post-Tupelo project knocked his former bandmate Jay Farrar’s work with Son Volt flat on its ass. With Being There, Wilco made an extraordinary rock record, one that all but closed the book on the indie country thing for me. With Summerteeth, they stretched out and made a classic pop record. And with the amazing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they somehow crafted one of the best albums of the decade so far.

And then, well, wow. Tweedy’s partner in crime, Jay Bennett, left the band, and he seemingly took all of their melodic sense with him, as 2004’s A Ghost is Born trafficked in somnambulant boredom, when it wasn’t being actively annoying. Following that train wreck, Tweedy unveiled the new Wilco, including guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline, and utility man Pat Sansone. And surprise surprise, the subsequent live album Kicking Television was pretty great. With this lineup, Wilco seemed poised to deliver something superb next time they hit the studio.

Alas, here is Sky Blue Sky, and it is music to grow old and die to. Tweedy has thankfully curbed the experimental streak that led him to include 12 minutes of white noise on Ghost, but he’s also reined in the whole “rock band” thing, leaving his dream lineup sounding like every lame soft-rock band on AM radio in the 1970s. Many of the songs on Sky Blue Sky are ones the Eagles would have rejected as too wussy, especially in the saggy middle third, and the whole thing sounds like background music for the shuffleboard court.

Some of it’s not bad – “Impossible Germany” ends with a striking guitar duel between Tweedy and Cline, one of the few moments of pulsing life here, and closer “On and On and On” is Tweedy’s best work on this record. The bar’s not all that high, of course, but this song actually has a melody you can recall 10 minutes after you hear it, so it gets the prize.

The tragedy of this mellow California sunshine record is that the band Tweedy’s assembled to play it is obviously much more talented than the material. These songs are beneath them, and you can hear it every time Cline peals off a jazzy, complex solo, or Sansone whips out a piano flourish. They’re straining against the boundaries of these half-assed songs, trying to make them interesting and failing. I don’t mind low-key breather albums, but why would you make one of those when you have these musicians at your disposal, obviously aching to make great music?

Here is what I think: Jeff Tweedy is punking us. Except for a couple of places (like the near-metal solo on “Side With the Seeds”), this album is so mellow that even my dentist would be bored with it. It reminds me of nothing more than those latter-period Phish albums that I listened to once or twice, and then shelved without much comment. Only you never heard critics calling The Story of the Ghost a work of genius, and yet here’s every pundit in the country falling all over themselves to justify an album this lackadaisical from one of their anointed heroes.

I think Tweedy is trying to see what he can get away with and still get rock reviewers to kiss his feet. It’s the same thing Radiohead’s been doing for years. It’s an elaborate joke fueled by laziness and lack of inspiration. It’s just a theory, of course, but the other alternative is that Tweedy really likes this album, and believes it holds up next to the likes of Being There and Foxtrot. And if that’s the case, it really is a tragedy.

That’s the other side to the expectation game – if Sky Blue Sky had been an album by a new band, I’d probably be willing to give it more of a chance. It would still bore me, but maybe the lazy, hazy vibe would connect more if I didn’t have more than a decade of history to compare it to. As an album, Sky Blue Sky is probably a C minus. But as a Wilco album, it’s a dreadful failure. That’s the curse of excellence. Most bands will never make a record as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Wilco likely never will again. It’s an albatross around their necks, and its shadow makes a trifle like Sky Blue Sky seem like an unpardonable sin.

But all you can do as a fan is get used to disappointment. I’m already dreading the next albums by Sufjan Stevens, Mute Math, Keane, Joanna Newsom, Aimee Mann, the Choir, and a dozen others that are on a roll with their recorded output. But even if they fall flat on their faces, as Wilco has, I will faithfully line up and buy the next one, and the next one after that, because being a music fan is all about hope and faith. Every once in a while, the impossible happens – U2 makes an amazing record after a decade of fumbling about, or Brian Wilson finds his voice and finishes one of the best albums ever made. You never know with music, and that’s the magic of it all. It makes even the worst of it worth every second.

Next week, probably the next installment of Dear Dave Mustaine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.