Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Album Review: Wilco (The Album)
Drama seems to follow some people around like a horde of gnats will plague an outfielder. Ever since the breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has seen his fair share of drama. Sometimes the drama seemed self caused (he's consistently dismissed band members, seemingly often out of boredom). Sometimes he was just a victim of circumstances (Wilco's 2001 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was famously rejected by the band's label, and they were immediately dismissed from the label's roster). Whatever the cause, the guy hasn't been able to avoid the drama. Whether from his 15+ years of media fueled feuding with Uncle Tupelo co-frontman Jay Farrar, or the aforementioned situation with YHF, Tweedy's work has often found it's way to the spotlight.
What this story won't tell you is that, generally, Tweedy's music is almost always damn good. After two consecutive albums (YHF along with 2004's uneven, but often brilliant, A Ghost Is Born) that delved into studio experimentation, 2007's Sky Blue Sky was a return to performance based material. Whether this return was welcome or not depends on who you talk to; reviews were somewhat mixed. I thought it was a great throwback. With the addition of avent-garde guitarist Nels Cline, the band's jams were now accompanied by an accomplished musician who added a sound that was fairly unique to the genre. Now, with the same lineup on two consecutive albums for the first time in the bands' history, Wilco releases Wilco (The Album).
First things first: is this album self titled? Or is it a poke at self titled albums; a tongue in cheek rib? I'm inclined to think the latter, because the first track is called Wilco (The Song). After asking the listener "Do you dabble in depression, is someone twisting a knife in your back?", Tweedy comes in with the refrain "Wilco will love you baby". If this sounds like an advertisement, it's because it is. But it's not real; it's a (fairly humorous) jab at the "rocking opener". The gist is that Wilco understands a successful album needs to start with a blistering opener to catch the listener's ear, but they aren't going to catch your ear without making fun of you. The punchline is that, despite the self-referential (self-deprecating?) lyrics, the song really is catchy.
Second track, Deeper Down, is classic Wilco (whatever that is). It starts with a quietly strummed acoustic guitar, but slowly builds into something much more sonically exciting. Black Bull Nova sounds like the band still hasn't gotten past the sound they developed on AGIB (which certainly isn't a bad thing), while Tweedy explores some dark lyrical territory. "There’s blood in the trunk, I can’t calm down" he laments, taking the point of view of a freshly minted murderer.
After that, the album settles into a traditional groove. Songs flow at a graceful, comfortable pace. Much like Sky Blue Sky, there is an air of familiarity to these songs, but they're still interesting enough to make an impact. The much hyped duet with Leslie Feist, You And I, is a simple acoustic pop song that explores the depth of a relationship. Again, nothing groundbreaking, just really, really good.
I think the bottom line with Wilco is that, no matter the sound they're employing, they have an uncanny ability to communicate with music like few bands are. Tweedy is able to say more with one strum of his guitar or one verse of words than most musicians are able to say in an entire song. At this point in their careers, I'm not sure that Wilco is capable of doing anything new. But with the ability to create an album as good as this one, I'm not sure that I really want them to try anyway.
You And I