It is May 2009, and Jeff Tweedy has just streamed the seventh Wilco album on his band’s website. For perhaps the first time in Wilco’s complicated 15-year history, there is a palpable air of contentment to proceedings. The band lineup has remained miraculously unchanged, and there doesn’t appear to have been, as has become tradition, a radical creative rethink. Instead, Wilco (the album) picks up more or less where 2007’s mellow and soulful Sky Blue Sky left off, but subtly expands that record’s parameters.
Uncharacteristically, Tweedy also seems to have become reconciled to the music of his own past, so that the album often harks back to sounds and atmospheres – the sounds and atmospheres of 1999’s Summerteeth and 1996’s Being There strikingly – which he has spent most of the past decade trying hard to transcend. Tweedy’s ability to confound his fans is still there, but this time it comes to the fore in his lyrics. Those who have fetishised Tweedy as a tormented artist may be traumatised themselves by the content of Wilco (the album): often playful, and possessing a deep, droll, mature acceptance of the way things are. “There’re so many wars that just can’t be won/Even before the battle’s begun,” Tweedy sings gleefully in “Wilco (the song)”, “This is an aural arms open wide/ A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.”
In spite of Tweedy’s best-laid plans, however, a sort of gloom has subsequently accumulated around Wilco (the album), generated by the death on May 23 of Jay Bennett, a critical former member of the band. There’s a terrible pathos imposed on a clutch of these songs now. Just at the moment when Tweedy feels liberated enough to revisit the feel of his late ’90s music, the man who contributed so much to those albums first tries to sue him for royalties, then dies in his sleep. No matter how diligently Tweedy strives to escape mess and melancholy, they still return to engulf his band, one way or another.
It’s hard, then, to listen to “Deeper Down”, without thinking of Bennett, since it draws so assiduously on more or less the same baroque pop that he once championed in Wilco. As Tweedy explores the comforts of existentialism, a recurring theme of Wilco (the album) (“I adore the meaninglessness of the this we can’t express,” he pronounces, not the only instance of creaky lyrics on the album), all manner of steel guitars, glassy harpsichord-like effects – purportedly Nels Cline on guitar – and so on eddy around him. The meticulously layered result is not dissimilar to something like “Pieholden Suite” from Summerteeth, while the processed studio noise is held at bay in the background. It was the foregrounding of that noise, on similar melodic confections like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, that lead to Bennett leaving Wilco in 2001 in the wake of the fractious sessions for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Elsewhere, “Wilco (the song)” and “Sonny Feeling” have that punchy mix of Big Star powerpop, faint Stones raunch and rock classicism (“Wilco (the song)” is that staple of trad rockers; the vamp that sounds a bit like “Werewolves Of London”) akin to about half of Being There. The unfortunate truth, though, is that this is clearly a happier and more intuitive lineup of Wilco than the ones which featured Bennett. The swinging confidence of “Sonny Feeling”, in particular, is unostentatiously breathtaking, as are the little details in what initially appears to be a pretty straightforward arrangement; listen to the discreet virtuosity with which Cline keeps evolving his guitar fills at the end of each line.
Bennett’s great fight circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was with the supposedly avant-garde mixer, Jim O’Rourke, and it’s another irony of sorts that Wilco (the album) is co-produced by Jim Scott, who mixed Being There and Summerteeth, and whose other major clients – Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting – don’t immediately suggest that he’s an experimental maverick.
Nowadays, of course, Wilco have two musicians with serious leftfield chops (Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche) implanted inside the band. It’s a measure of Tweedy’s reliable perversion, though, that – as happened on Sky Blue Sky – their frictional talents are kept on a leash; Cline wasn’t even present for early sessions in New Zealand last winter. The guitarist may take flight when the band play live (his searing contribution to a Summerteeth song, “Shot In The Arm” on 2005’s live set, Kicking Television, is a handy example), but here his devilry is chiefly in the details: the immensely lyrical flurries that he wraps around “One Wing”, for instance, or the filigree squiggles that close “Everlasting Everything”.
His showcase, though, is “Bull Black Nova”, a bloodstained fiction written from the perspective of a man who’s just murdered someone in his car, grafted onto an edgy motorik pulse, a distressed structural relative of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, from 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. By the end of “Bull Black Nova”, Tweedy, Cline and Pat Sansone’s massed guitars are clanking and spitting like some face-off between Television and Sonic Youth. It’s then, about four minutes in, that a slight disappointment surfaces – that Wilco haven’t made an entire album as abrasive and daring as this one track, one that could measure up to their high-water mark A Ghost Is Born.
The consolations of Wilco (the album) are sweeter, based on masterful songwriting craft (half of Sky Blue Sky were co-writes. This time Tweedy writes everything himself – save “Deeper Down”, a collaboration with Sansone). They can be found in “You And I”, a radio-friendly, poignantly observed song about the vagaries of enduring love, sung intimately by Tweedy and Leslie Feist. They’re in “Solitaire”, a hushed warning against the perils of self-absorption that begins like Nick Drake, then blossoms into something which, if Tweedy hadn’t railed so eloquently against the term over the years, we might just about call alt.country (“Far Far Away”, from Being There, is a plausible reference point).
And they’re at their brightest in “You Never Know”, which points up the futilities of angst while barrelling along like a lost track from George Harrison’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass, right down to the “My Sweet Lord” slide guitar. “Come on children, you’re acting like children ,” sings Tweedy, “Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” As a celebration, it’s a peculiarly rueful one. In common with much of Wilco (the album), the gist seems to be that while everything might not be great, it’s totally counterproductive to spend all our time consumed by stress.
But as an anthem made by men of a certain age who’ve been there, done that and taken the picture of the camel in a party hat (as seen on the cover), it works brilliantly. Wilco (the album) feels like Tweedy coming to terms with his past and his place in the rock’n’roll firmament. If only one of his former bandmates had been lucky enough to reach a point of such resolution.
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