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Wilco
Wilco (The Album) - Nonesuch
FILTER Grade: 87%

By Kyle MacKinnel on November 19, 2009

 

Wilco

Rooted in the title of its second album, Wilco has not forgotten the utter importance of being there. No other band has consistently proven its relevance in the tumultuous currents of today’s America as Jeff Tweedy and his ever-rotating crew. Hailing from the heart of the nation, in a loft in uptown Chicago, this band has churned out several of the timeliest albums in the past decade. And, they have done so in the midst of critical events that have shaken this country to its very core. It hasn’t been easy. Wilco (The Album) adds yet another point to this arc.

1999 saw Wilco reaching its stride and spreading its country-feathered wings with Summerteeth, beginning to dabble in the shaky experimentalism that has since become its calling card. There was a melancholy under the surface (inspired by Tweedy’s marital tension), and an emerging writing presence from multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. Two years later, Wilco had completed its masterwork in the intoxicating, transformative Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Tweedy had already butted heads with Bennett when the Twin Towers fell. It was right around this time that its creative bubble burst and Wilco really began to resonate.

 In the years since 9/11, Wilco has continued to inadvertently echo the despondent attitudes of America. Though the music is largely derivative of personal events in the band’s life, its chords do ring wider than a recording studio in a Chicago skyscraper. A Ghost is Born (2004) was the sound of chaos expanded, coming at a time of disarray—when question marks were more prevalent than periods, and it was all there in the music. 2007 brought Sky Blue Sky (following the addition of guitarist Nels Cline), and with it a pacified brand of pseudo-happiness. Meanwhile, the rest of us had stopped holding our breath aghast, and had begun counting down to the changes that America would inevitably see, please…any day now.

Now it’s 2009, and right on the heels of Bennett’s tragic passing, Wilco (The Album) finds everybody with a plate more full than ever before. It’s the first repeat lineup over two records in Wilco’s history, and the result performance-wise is a band more acclimated than on Sky Blue Sky, where then-newcomer Nels Cline’s guitar work became obtrusive at times (think “Impossible Germany”). Here, songs like the cloudy, haunting “Deeper Down” see Cline’s classically informed electric in a more integrated role, sitting at the right hand in Boss Tweedy’s gang.

Jim Scott, an engineer on several earlier Wilco releases, serves as co-producer on this one. Maybe it’s the longer time span playing together or that there’s an extra hand behind the boards, but either way, the result is a more focused sound. Last year’s tour dates opening for Neil Young probably didn’t hurt matters, either, as the emergence of the slide cimbalom illuminates several of Wilco’s tracks. After all, Tweedy is a man after Young’s own heart, what with his maverick songwriting and uncompromising band-leadership. In fact, if I were told that Harvest was a model for this record, it’d be easy to believe.

Also like his golden-hearted elder, Tweedy’s songwriting tends to operate in ebbs and flows, and the latest release sees a new shot of life added to it. “Bull Black Nova” is the neurotic recounting of a man’s thoughts after murdering his girlfriend. Mikael Jorgensen’s spastic keyboards are auxiliary to the frantic narrative, and Tweedy is again able to say something larger within a specific framework: “High at the wheel of a bull black Nova/and I’m sorry as a setting sun/This can’t be undone, this can’t be outrun.” “You and I” is a pretty little ballad and one of the most charming songs in Tweedy’s catalogue (though a tip of the hat is surely due to guest vocalist Leslie Feist).

In tone, Wilco (The Album) seems a fitting counterpart to its decadal predecessor, Summerteeth. Both records begin on an upbeat note of irony, with “Wilco the Song” as a rare, unprovoked vote of self-confidence. Beginning with “Deeper Down” and extending through the excellent “One Wing” and “Nova,” that same unsettling tension, which has been absent from Wilco recordings in recent memory, rears its stubborn head. “Solitaire” is definitely a brother song of “How to Fight Loneliness” as well as a twangy standout, and it’s here that Pat Sansone’s slide makes its greatest impact. While Summerteeth watched the W. administration first take hold, Wilco stands firmly in its historic wake.

For better or worse, Wilco’s aging maturity is present on cuts like the familial “Sonny Feeling” and “You Never Know,” but it’s only natural. After all, the worst thing an elder band can do is behave like they’re still 25. On the latter song, Tweedy even knows it: “Come on children, you’re acting like children/every generation thinks it’s the end of the world…I don’t care anymore.”

America has been through a hell of a lot in the last 10 years, and no band has managed to chronicle it all quite like Wilco has, whether or not it was their original intention. Wilco (The Album) adds yet another chapter to the story, and if this band’s relevance is to continue going forward, then let the resilient closer “Everlasting Everything” score our impending sunrise.

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