Under Pressure
Trying to Love Wilco and Sturgill Simpson

As much as I like to think I am my own person, beholden to no one when it comes to my personal taste in music, I have to admit that I do feel pressure to like certain things.

Most of the time I’m immune to the Pitchfork crowd and their manufactured hype, especially when it surrounds new artists. There’s literally no way that someone with just a self-released home-recorded EP under their belt has redefined what it means to be a musician in the 21st century, but pretty much every week I’m inundated with such bizarre proclamations from indie tastemakers. And mainly I just ignore them. It’s healthier that way. I tend to prefer artists with bodies of work anyway, musical journeys I can sink my teeth into.

But sometimes it does get to me. There are bands and artists I feel I should like, and those are the ones whose records I keep buying in some vain attempt to crack their code. An excellent example is the National, an act I find almost supernaturally boring. The buzz around them has never died down, and so many people I know and trust adore them that I am left feeling like something must be wrong with me. So I keep trying their new material, and it keeps leaving me cold.

I wish it were not the case, but Wilco has fit that particular bill for 15 years now. It’s especially difficult because I love their early material. The first four Wilco albums are varying shades of excellent, particularly the sprawling Being There and the still-incredible Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But ever since the late Jay Bennett exited the band, leaving Jeff Tweedy in sole control, Wilco has bored me silly. I’ve bought every album, and even explored Tweedy’s solo work, and almost none of it has struck any kind of chord with me.

I say almost none because I enjoyed “Wilco (The Song)” and felt like The Whole Love was a stronger effort. But in the eight years since that album Tweedy hasn’t written a single song that resonates with me. That streak remains alive on Ode to Joy, the 11th Wilco record, which – despite the buzz – is just as formless and lifeless as most of the band’s post-YHF material. I want to like this. I really do. But these songs just kind of start and end without doing anything in between, and as much as I like hearing a happier Tweedy, what he’s delivered here is as lazy as ever.

I should say that there are two songs that nearly come alive. Where Tweedy sounds at least half asleep on most of this record, he wakes up a bit for “Everyone Hides,” which chugs forward on Glenn Kotche’s mildly energetic drumming. This elevates the song to the point where it is, you know, fine, which makes it the high point. And the single, “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” makes its simple strum and triumphant electric guitar arpeggio work for it. It’s still a very basic 6/8 shuffle of a thing, but at least I remember it.

That’s about it, though. The rest of Ode to Joy sounds barely alive to me, dragging its feet from song to song without any enthusiasm. I like bits – the harmonized guitar on “Hold Me Anyway,” the distorted flare-ups on “We Were Lucky” – but no whole songs. Wilco songs used to have choruses, used to stick in the mind, and lately they sound like Tweedy is angling for a participation trophy in his own band. Perhaps if I didn’t hear so often what a revered songwriter he is, I wouldn’t expect as much from him. As it is, Ode to Joy is another disappointment in an increasingly long line of them.

Another guy I’m supposed to love is Sturgill Simpson, but luckily he makes it a lot easier to be aboard his train. Ever since he struck gold with his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson has been lauded as the future of twangy rock and roll. I liked Metamodern and I really liked its follow-up, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, with its horns and its Nirvana cover and its general attitude. Simpson calls himself country, but he’s impossible to pigeonhole, and even protested the country music establishment in 2017 after not receiving an invitation to their annual awards.

If that didn’t drive in the final nail in his coffin with the old guard, his new album Sound and Fury absolutely will. It’s the most unexpected left turn of the year – Simpson has created an anime film, available on Netflix, and a synth-flavored futuristic rock record as its soundtrack. Hands up if you saw any of this coming after Sailor’s Guide, because I sure didn’t.

I’ve yet to watch the film, but I’ve heard the album a few times. As you might expect, it’s ruffling the right feathers, but it’s also garnering praise from all the right corners. If you like artistic surprises, this thing is for you. It’s a convincingly stomping rock record with more than a touch of ZZ Top to it, with a healthy smattering of ‘80s keyboards. It sounds like the score to a fast-paced car chase, an impression only heightened by the technique of separating songs with static, to simulate the effect of turning a radio dial.

This thing was obviously a lot of fun to make – you can hear it in the funk bass and percolating percussion of “A Good Look,” one of the best things here. After the opening instrumental, nearly every other song boogies along like dystopian dance numbers, and Simpson’s band clearly enjoyed cutting loose. Even when it chills out, as on the synthesizer landscape of “Make Art Not Friends,” there’s a real sense of freedom here, of Simpson just doing whatever he wanted. That, as an artist, is a great position to be in.

I do feel, though, that Simpson relied too heavily on the shock of this new sound to carry this album, and it only barely does so. A lot of these songs rely on overused chord progressions and fail to truly hit home, alas. “Best Clockmaker on Mars,” for example, has a great charging riff and makes good use of Simpson’s throaty shout, but beyond its basic blues structure, it doesn’t do anything interesting. The synthesizer jumps in halfway through to save it, and that illustrates my issue with this record: I wish Simpson had spent as much time on the songs as he did on the physical sound of the thing.

Because the sound is amazing, especially given Simpson’s prior efforts. He does score with “All Said and Done,” a strong acoustic ballad, and with the closing jam, “Fastest Horse in Town.” But it’s the sound I will remember here more than the songs, and for a guy who made his name as a songwriter, that’s a bit odd. Sound and Fury is weird enough that I wish I unreservedly loved it. I do like it, though, quite a bit, and I heartily endorse the artistic impulse that led Simpson to create it. I hope he stays true to his vision from here on out, because if Sound and Fury is any indication, it should be a wild career.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I expect to wax ecstatic about Elbow and Coyote Kid. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.