Schmilco’s intimacy is refreshing.
If Wilco’s beginnings were defined by strife and conflict, its latter years are all about unity and harmony. Unfortunately, comfort doesn’t necessarily facilitate the creation of great art, and the band’s output since its unlikely mainstream breakthrough in 2002 has been frustrating at times, culminating most recently in last year’s tossed-off, barely-existent Star Wars. It seemed as though Wilco was just a few formless, extended jam albums away from becoming Phish for the NPR set, which makes Schmilco a welcome surprise. Simple without being simplistic, the new album is the band’s most low-key set of songs, and its intimacy is refreshing.
In contrast to the band-oriented material of the last few albums, this is almost a Jeff Tweedy solo album, more so than his own solo album. Much of Schmilco finds Tweedy accompanied by his acoustic guitar and the sparest accompaniment. Wilco rarely comes close to being a rock band here; this is a decidedly introspective affair meant to sit with the listener for some time after it’s finished. If Star Wars was a dumb, raucous party, then this is the existential hangover that follows, a silent consideration of what any of this really means, anyway.
The tone is set with “Normal American Kids,” which features Tweedy with spare contributions from Nels Cline. The song plays with the sort of abstract imagery used to great effect on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, except the pill-induced emotional fog has been replaced with something more emotionally raw. Tweedy sounds several years younger, so much so that you might think you’re hearing a demo from the Being There/Summerteeth days. Further on, the band returns to Krautrock-inspired cyclical composition on “Cry All Day,” which hints at something darker without veering into overblown drama. Wilco’s sweeter folk songs even have a different bent, with songs like “Quarters” and “Shrug and Destroy” coming across as more affecting than cloying. For the most part, Wilco sounds positively rejuvenated, its effortless approach to songwriting returning to them in a big way.
Don’t think that Schmilco is a return to greatness, though. While Wilco have shaken off the flippancy that sunk its last album, this one is decidedly slight. Though that slightness has its charms, few would claim the new one stands up to the multi-layered textures of YHF or the majestic chaos of Being There. What’s more, Wilco still hasn’t entirely shaken off the desire to fuck around in the studio for its exclusive amusement. “Common Sense” and “Nope” should be cutting room floor outtakes by this band’s standards, yet here they are. Given how focused the rest of the album is, these songs feel even more like jarring outliers.
Overall, Schmilco is a welcome return to form. It’s not an unprecedented move for Wilco; the tail end of Star Wars hinted at this shift in direction. Still, it’s a relief to see that the band has shed the flippancy that seemed ready to doom it to jam-band irrelevancy. For all of the vaunted musicianship of Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, this band is at its best when the songs come first. All it takes is a clear head and a little bit of effort. And it’s damn good to hear Wilco get it together again.