Sometime in the late 1980s, Jeff Tweedy and some friends from Belleville, Illinois, formed a band called Uncle Tupelo. They were pretty good, as it happens, but the impact they had was phenomenal. By fusing American roots music with the scrappy vigour of punk and grunge, Uncle Tupelo accidentally kicked off the entire alternative country scene. Quite an achievement.
But one that wasn’t good enough for Jeff Tweedy. In 1994, Uncle Tupelo split up, and Tweedy began a quest to stretch the parameters of what we could loosely call Americana - though he’d probably baulk at the term himself. Tweedy put together Wilco and, over the course of six studio albums, various elaborate and rewarding projects and multiple gifted line-ups, the band have become one of the most inventive and popular bands in America.
For a start, Tweedy appeared happy to follow the path of Uncle Tupelo. But the straightforward alt-country ramalam of 1995 debut A.M. was soon revealed to be merely an entertaining warm-up. The following year’s Being There was a much clearer indication of Tweedy’s rapacious ambition: a 2CD set that swung ecstatically from Stonesy rockers to intimate meditations. Tweedy and his cohorts (especially multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), it appeared, could turn their hand to anything.
Now, Wilco had rapidly established themselves as a band with a potent understanding of American songwriting traditions, and a relentless drive to reinvent those ancient forms. They teamed up with Billy Bragg to put musical bones on a sheaf of neglected Woody Guthrie lyrics, then switched to a kind of bitter, richly-detailed power-pop on 1999’s Summer Teeth.
For their next album, however, Tweedy had riskier plans. His beautiful songs would be placed in complex new soundbeds, where computer hiss and radio interference would jostle for space with the conventional musicians. The result was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a landmark album that was rejected by their old and rather conservative label (and by Bennett, who left the band) before being streamed on the internet and picked up by the sagacious Nonesuch imprint. Released in 2002, it became a huge success. Wilco had long been seen as the natural successors to REM, but now they were acclaimed as the American Radiohead, too.
Alt-country was far too restrictive a term for this new music. By 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, Wilco had focused all their disparate ideas and influences into a wonderful whole, organically shifting from backwoods soul reminiscent of The Band to Krautrock jams and enveloping noise pieces that simulated Tweedy’s migraines. Tweedy had never had a better band, and their power was amply illustrated by a classic live album, Kicking Television, recorded at a hometown show in Chicago.
He has never had a more stable band, either. Which brings us to Wilco’s new album, Sky Blue Sky. It’s the sound of six brilliant musicians revelling in the simple art of playing together, liberated from having to prove anything to anyone. Tweedy, especially, is inspired, a frontman who knows he has one of the best bands in the world playing his songs. If you’re new to Wilco, it’s the ideal place to start a great musical adventure.
A cautious but endearing start. After sharing the spotlight in Uncle Tupelo with Jay Farrar, Tweedy takes charge for a set of fluent, good-time country rock. Only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain in the band today.
BEING THERE (album)
The first classic, a sprawling 2CD effort that showcases Tweedy’s ability to master a bewildering range of styles. Quietly explosive opener “Misunderstood” remains one of the band’s signature tunes.
MERMAID AVENUE (Album with Billy Bragg)
Woody Guthrie’s daughter lets Bragg and Wilco loose on her father’s archive of unpublished lyrics. Bragg dominates, but Tweedy and Jay Bennett’s take on “California Stars” is the album’s highlight.
SUMMER TEETH (album)
An unexpected but rewarding left turn into elaborate, rather baroque power-pop. The tunes are amongst Wilco’s poppiest. But perversely, Tweedy’s lyrics have never been so dark and tortured.
MERMAID AVENUE VOLUME TWO (Album with Billy Bragg)
A second jaunt through through the Guthrie library with the estimable Bragg. This time, the Wilco-driven keeper is the opening “Airline To Heaven”.
YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (album)
A concept album of sorts about communication breakdown, underscored with gales of radio static. Record company shenanigans provided a gripping sub-plot, but these are some of Tweedy’s most affecting songs.
MORE LIKE THE MOON (EP)
Six more songs from the fraught but fruitful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, originally released as a bonus disc with the album in Australia. “A Magazine Called Sunset” is one of the band’s sweetest and most undervalued songs.
DOWN WITH WILCO (Album with The Minus Five)
Ostensibly the fifth album by The Minus Five (a group featuring Peter Buck and various members of the REM touring band). But Wilco came along for the ride, providing an edge to the generally easy-going, likeable power-pop.
A GHOST IS BORN (album)
Another stressful production, recorded while Tweedy battled painkiller addiction. The band, though, never sounded better, with Tweedy and co-producer Jim O’Rourke inspiring them into liberating leftfield territory.
A GHOST IS BORN (EP)
An adjunct to the main album, first available as a free download then bundled with the original CD. Includes three rousing live tracks, plus two fine studio out-takes in “Panthers” and “Kicking Television”.
KICKING TELEVISION: LIVE IN CHICAGO (album)
Epic, roistering 2CD set, featuring the intuitive - and best ever - current line-up of Wilco. Listen out for Nels Cline’s needling, high-end guitar duels with Tweedy on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Handshake Drugs”.
SKY BLUE SKY (album)
Deceptively mellow set, with Tweedy steering the Kicking Television line-up into some harmonious and economical jams reminiscent of early ‘70s Grateful Dead. Proof, too, that contentment doesn’t stifle creativity.