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Wilco: Wilco (The Album)

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Wilco

Wilco (The Album)

Rating: 4.0

Label: Nonesuch

Wilco’s earliest records were exploratory affairs; the simple alt-country of 1995’s A.M. barely prepared listeners for the triumphant genre bending they’d explore on 1996’s double-LP masterpiece Being There. Summerteeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) were even more rewarding (and bewildering) for listeners, overflowing with deeply personal lyrics and equally adventurous production. Summerteeth seemed obsessed with the darkest parts of lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s psyche; drug use, domestic abuse, family abandonment and death were explored in lyrics while wrapped in a shiny, chamber-pop musical package. The breakdown of those domestic ties supplied Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with its narrative, sparse, detached production reinforcing Tweedy’s growing alienation.

Tweedy entered rehab and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born captured the messy details. Amid torrents of guitar wails and whispered confessions, it seemed the proverbial ghost had indeed been given up. By Ghost’s side B, Tweedy’s songs were markedly less turbulent, concerned more with religion and musical legacies than one man’s internal struggles.

Looking back, this record may have captured Wilco’s transformation into Wilco (The Professional Band). 2007’s Sky Blue Sky was an odd, nonchalant record, both lyrically and musically. The tone was dominated by dueling guitars and big choruses; lyrically, Tweedy seemed to be dealing with normalcy for the first time. Despite heading a world-touring band, he was faced with reality: being a good husband, father and musician were suddenly a focus. It was a solid collection of songs – Wilco records are, and remain, well-pruned musical exercises – but it missed the highs and lows that come from an artist being forced to wrestle with his personal demons, instead faced with the challenges of being a Midwestern dad and professional musician. This feeling feeds into Wilco (The Album), and the results are better that would be expected.

Wilco, as a band, has had a famously revolving cast of musicians through the years. This particular iteration (Wilco Mk. V) has been together since 2004, integrating guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone with established players Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, percussionist Glenn Kotche and pianist Mikael Jorgensen. With a static lineup for half a decade, this band has found a niche as the immaculate-sounding-but-still-loose-and-organic all-American rock band.

Wilco (The Album) opens with “Wilco (The Song),” an honest-to-goodness love letter to fans. Literally. Tweedy sings “Wilco/ Wilco/ Wilco will love you, baby” with what I can only imagine is the biggest, goofiest smile he’s ever worn. After the awkwardly endearing feeling wears off, the song is clearly a nice gesture tied to a song that will be absolutely huge when played live. On record, it’s a forgivable misstep. After that, everything clicks. “Deeper Down” demonstrates the first of many times Tweedy takes on a slightly different songwriting persona. He’s grown into a storyteller, in this case regaling us with images of a boxer’s life flashing before his eyes after a punch. The band surrounds Tweedy with complex, sinuous melodies and percussion, and it all adds up to a hell of a song. “One Wing” turns up the catchiness quotient and allows Tweedy to explore sweetly sick imagery while turning in the one of the record’s biggest sing-along choruses (the other belonging to the Summerteeth-esqe “You Never Know”). “Bull Black Nova” sounds like a continuation of Ghost’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” albeit with the narrator’s guilt over his girlfriend’s murder inspiring the lyrical imagery while the band builds tension for five minutes.

There are some eye-openers, too. Feist lends her voice to the breezy “You and I,” a simple and sweet love song. She and Tweedy sound warm and a little mischievous, which perfectly suits the song. “Solitaire” is disarmingly quiet and reflective, with a beautifully double-tracked vocal from Tweedy. Stepping back into his storyteller’s boots, Tweedy imagines a serviceman’s sacrifice in “I’ll Fight,” with both fear and foresight.

While this particular Wilco iteration may have reached a contented, happy place both personally and professionally, they’re not content to stop writing great music, even if it lacks some of their former emotional struggles. Wilco {The Album) ultimately serves as a statement that the band isn’t bored with their steadiness, but is instead reveling in the opportunity to explore it from different angles. It’s a collection of gorgeous, well-written songs, and asking for more is unnecessary – and unfair to the band. Let them be happy.

by Jason Stoff

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