As has probably been pointed out ad nauseam, Jeff Tweedy seems to take a constant pleasure in wrongfooting Wilco fans. So it is with the start of “The Whole Love”, the band’s eighth studio album. “Art Of Almost” begins with a burst of staticky guitar and pulses along, mixing orchestral stabs, a plausibly funky bassline, a motorik core akin to “Spiders” and “Bull Black Nova”, and a distracted melody from Tweedy.
After about five minutes, though, Nels Cline steps up for one of the most frantically disruptive solos he’s contributed to a Wilco studio effort. As an opening gambit, it seems as if Tweedy and his bandmates are reasserting their quasi-leftfield credentials from the start; is this the return to “Ghost Is Born” territory requested by all those who believe – wrongly, I think – that “Wilco (The Album)” and “Sky Blue Sky” – were bland cop-outs?
Not quite, is the predictable answer. For the most part, once “Art Of Almost” is done, “The Whole Love” smuggles in its experiments undercover. “Sunloathe”, for example, once again showcases Tweedy’s Lennon/Harrison chamber fetish, but deeper in the mix there are all sorts of ambient dislocations, buried gems for the headphones set to catch on the ninth listen.
It’s an odd record, in all sorts of ways – though of course not necessarily the ones you might have predicted. Save the confident powerpop throb of “Born Alone”, the boldness of “Wilco (The Album)” has been replaced by a more tentative, sketchy vibe. There’s a little less polish, and more of a sense of a band trying things out in their own space, retaining the odd abrasive scrape and strum. Tweedy, too, sounds less anchored and at his most airy, so that even his neater songs have an open-ended, spontaneous feel.
Not all of it works completely, and there are songs in the middle of the record that don’t feel entirely cooked (the new wave “Standing O”, especially). The most successful often feel of a piece, being thoughtful, introverted and largely acoustic reveries that, in the case of “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung”, map out some aesthetic territory between “Five Leaves Left” and “Sister Lovers”.
Both songs are lovely, but both ultimately feel like preludes to “The Whole Love”’s final track. “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” takes a mighty long time to unravel – a fraction over 12 minutes – and initially doesn’t seem to travel very far. It’s an illustration of how a simple folk figure can accrue a momentum over time that’s as compelling and hypnotic as any Krautrock drone, and a masterclass in subtlety; both of songwriting and of instrumentation – check how pianos, steel and sundry other Cline effects fade in and out of the mix in the acoustic guitar’s wake.
Beyond that previous Nick Drake ref, I’m also reminded of Yo La Tengo – maybe something like “Night Falls On Hoboken” – another band who’ve discovered ways of turning their exploratory freakouts in on themselves. Having lived with this for a month or two, I’m not convinced “The Whole Love” is one of Wilco’s very greatest albums, but “One Sunday Morning” sounds more and more like as good a song as Tweedy’s ever been involved with. What do you think?