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.