Wilco (The Album)

wilco-the-albumStarting with “Wilco (The Song),” which sounds like an upbeat inverse of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Wilco announce their intentions quickly on Wilco (The Album).   “Do you dabble in depression?” Jeff Tweedy asks, and it’s not the question itself that’s new for Wilco–far from it–but the fact that there’s an answer that comes with it.   “Wilco will love you, baby,” he sings before hand bells ring over Nels Cline’s moaning guitars.   Put simply and quickly and reductively, Wilco (The Album) is one of the greatest breakup albums of all time, in no small part because it’s the sound of Jeff Tweedy forever divorcing himself from the darkness, paranoia, and cynicism to which he’s subjected himself since at least Summerteeth.   Ain’t no wallowing around here.

The early A.M. aside, Wilco have never been a predictable band.   While some (i.e., many) would have preferred Tweedy and his group to continue to stare into the smoke of 2001’s quietly epic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Chicago sextet has instead moved into a new Americana, an Americana drenched in the feedback loops of the times but increasingly optimistic that there is a light somewhere, at some point, in some sort of eventual time.   YHF is, of course, considered the group’s masterpiece and, once the decade is said and done, will assume a place very near the top of the Best Of The 00’s.   But as the group has matured and evolved, Tweedy has grown more comfortable in his faded jeans, dialing down the migraine duplicates in favor of more traditional song structures, melodies, and themes.   Wilco (The Album) continues in this trend, almost to the point of making the infamously morose singer unrecognizable.   As such, there are words all over Wilco (The Album) that seem almost out of place–words like “blessing,” “Jesus” (as in the name, not the swear word), “love,” “Dear,” and, most tellingly, “you.”   All of these are sung with varying degrees of conviction, sure, but it’s hard not to believe the bullet-taker rock of “I’ll Fight” or the fuzzy solos of the aptly-named “Sunny Feeling.

Which isn’t to say that Wilco have gone all soft rock.   Those who lobbed the idiotic and immature “Dad Rock” label at Sky Blue Sky will be appeased by the nervy teenage guitar dreams of “Bull Black Nova,” which builds something between “Impossible Germany” and Television’s “Venus.”   “You Never Know” is simple and perfect pop rock that pokes at the aforementioned cultural catfighting. Tweedy prods at his listeners, telling them that they’re acting like children and adding later, “act your age, go back to black metal and perms.”   It’s grinny advice to not take oneself too seriously, to make room in one’s life for play.   Have some fun.

Because, really, that’s the reason that all of your favorite bands started making music, at least in the very very beginning.   Wilco (The Album) not only succeeds but stands near the top of Wilco’s extremely distinguished catalogue not because it Has Something To Say but because it’s not afraid of its own shadow.   It’s just six dudes making cool music, allowing themselves to smile and relax a bit, realizing that the obsession with the darkness isn’t some sort of special burden affixed by God to The Artist, but rather the consequence of The Artist’s obsession with himself.   “Once I thought the world was crazy / Everyone was sad and chasing / happiness and love and I was / the only one above it,” Tweedy sings in “Solitaire,” sounding something like Elliot Smith fronting The Band.   “I was cool as gasoline…It took too long to see / I was wrong to believe / In me only.”   This same theme is picked up in “You and I,” in which Tweedy duets with Feist, whose smoky vocals highlight just how lonely Jeff Tweedy–and, by extension, most contemporary indie rockers–typically sound.   Rather than wallow in the obscure anti-passions of past records, Tweedy is moving towards and becoming comfortable with the classical emotions of love, happiness, and comedy.   And here’s the truly weird part: he seems to have found something in them.

Wilco (The Album) will not win the accolades of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because it does not speak the same language.   YHF, brilliant though it is, offers its listeners little in the way of challenges, allowing the paranoid yuppies to keep staring, keep staring, keep staring, into the mirrored windows of their tall buildings.   Wilco (The Album) refuses to settle for such mediocrities–both from itself and its audience–and is the more courageous album for it.   And if the sound of six of the world’s best musicians banging out spangled and bejeweled pop-rock doesn’t get you off, then you may want to reconsider your record collection.   words/ m. garner

38 thoughts on “Wilco (The Album)

  1. This is really good. I love how you say “sounds like an upbeat inverse of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Wilco announce their intentions quickly on Wilco (The Album). “Do you dabble in depression?” Jeff Tweedy asks, and it’s not the question itself that’s new for Wilco–far from it–but the fact that there’s an answer that comes with it.” That is poetry man, especially knowing how Tweedy has waited for the “Man” and fought that demon and seems to fight it all the time. The subtle way you call him out on it, but not with a malice, rather an introspection is poetry.

    I am curious that you consider “The Album” stands either at or near the top of their pantheon of music and will certainly give it more than the quick glance over listen I did the first time.

    When you wrote , “YHF, brilliant though it is, offers its listeners little in the way of challenges, allowing the paranoid yuppies to keep staring, keep staring, keep staring, into the mirrored windows of their tall buildings.” Again more of that poetry. I seriously hope one day you compile all of this, or some of all of this into a novel of some sort or teach at a local college, b/c this stuff needs to be out there more than just the blog/net world. I get the million that stop by here, but I think a book cements these words, this “poetry” forever.

    So if you haven’t already begun a book of some sort or don’t have Dramatica Pro, I will gladly send you a copy (it’s like final draft for books I am told).

    Good stuff though. I hope more of you all comment on this post, as Wilco as far as I can remember is the impetus for this site, the namesake at least and this review covers a lot of ground both from the inside looking out and the outside looking in, as if those tall buildings had something to say too.

    – RJF

  2. wow – a stellar review. i’ve read several, and this is the first that seems to have really “got it”.

    no longer assassinin’ down the avenue – and all the better for it.

    as an aside, am i the only one who thinks “i’ll fight” is the band revisiting”when the roses bloom again” in light of a modern war?

  3. I’ll admit that it took me awhile to warm up to Sky Blue Sky, but I came to realize it as a masterpiece. Wilco (The Album) is a completely different record, and that’s what’s amazing about this band. Record after record they destroy the formula only to come up with something better. They have been the best band in the world for a decade now, and I would put their discography up against any band around.

    Put simply, I desperately want a reason to criticize Wilco and they just won’t give me one. That’s what makes them great – they don’t give a shit about what I think of their music.

    And by the way, they destroyed in Los Angeles (particularly their set at Pomona’s Fox Theater) last week. Any chance we’ll see them again in the fall?

  4. Oh, forgot to commend this review. Exceptional, thoughtful and incisive. Great work.

  5. Thanks for the great review. Seems like all the other articles and reviews (Pitchfork, Popmatters, Paste) just don’t seem to get this record. They’re claiming that this is a lazy record of a band in a holding pattern. Not true at all. You totally nailed the ethos of this record. It’s a new Tweedy and a new Wilco who are mastering their craft. And although the hipster kids will dismiss it, I don’t care. I’m finding this record to be extraordinarily fun and relaxing. (And Bull Black Nova is one of the best murder songs of the past 30 years.) This record will grow with repeated listens and move to the top of the cannon when it’s all said and done. Again, thanks for the spot-on review — writing like this is hard to come by in the blog world.

  6. This is a nice review that I think really hits at an important point – that being that this album fits in with Wilco’s catalogue as a nice work that is well done. For the band to be making music this good when they are already so popular and comfortable is quite a success in and of itself.

  7. I just got back from the June 30th show in Jacksonville, Oregon: a beautiful venue, and we milked the band for every last minute…the venue goes dark at 10:30 no matter what, and Jeff was on stage until the end.

    I haven’t heard the whole new album yet as a result, but I have to say that the “dad rock” comment about Sky Blue Sky made me chuckle, and it does a bit about this album too. It certainly was less obtuse than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, but Sky Blue Sky grew on me big time. There’s some wonderfully strong material on that album: Side With The Seeds, Impossible Germany, What Light and…the single best song about mowing the lawn ever “Hate It Here” (though I’ve a theory that Jesus, etc… from YHF is also about mowing the lawn, and if I got confirmation I’d vote for that in that category.

    I like what I’ve heard of the new Son Volt as well, but Wilco continues to impress much much more.

  8. In my opinion, Wilco (The Album) is Wilco’s best post-Bennett output.

    And to the “I’m Waiting For The Man” comparison for “Wilco (The Song)”, I will go even further and say Wilco (The Album) has subtle VU influences all around; in some ways it reminds me of VU’s, phenomenal 1969 self-titled album.

    The hipster quotient of this album may be “lower” than that of other Wilco albums, but who’s the arbiter of an album’s hipster quotient? Pitchfork (I read it “religiously”) didn’t bestow a “Best New Album” to it, but acknowledged Wilco (The Album) is far superior to Sky Blue Sky (my vote for Wilco’s most tepid work). I do agree where Pitchfork and others seem to not “get” this album; the folks over at All Music and here at the Drunkard (and, I speculate, a small legion of others) get it, and speculate they’re on to something. Exile on Main Street was an initial critical failure, but is today revered as one of the Stones’ seminal albums. I predict a similar fate for Wilco (The Album).

  9. “Wilco (The Album) not only succeeds but stands near the top of Wilco’s extremely distinguished catalogue” top of the catalogue? Seriously? Is it better than YHF? No. Is it better than Ghost? No. Is it better than Summerteeth? No. Is it better than Beeing There? No. Is it better than SBS? Maybe. Is it better than AM? Possibly. So the “TOP” you speak of is most likely the botom. This may be the worst Wilco album in their catalogue. It does have some highlights but not enough to have it adjacent to or in the vacinity of the other albums of Wilco’s discography.

    To me, IMHO, the band has become too narrowly focused since the departure of Jay Bennett. Jay was the yang to Tweedy’s ying and he was teh balancing act that kept Tweedy from getting too introspective in his writting and music. I believe the band has gone down hill since Jay’s departure. Tweedy has tried to make up for the void Jay has left on the talent side of the band (Nels, Sansone, Jorgensen) but yhey are just yes men to Tweedy’s ideas and not the kind of counterpart that the band really needs.


  10. With Wilco, there is no “bottom”; it is only proverbial. Even the “worst” Wilco albums are pretty darn good.

    And I do agree. Wilco (The Album) is not better than Summerteeth or YHF. I haven’t given Being There a good listen, but I can attest that Wilco (The Album) is superior to (at least) A.M., Sky Blue Sky, and and A Ghost Is Born. But Wilco (The Album) isn’t as far behind musically from Summerteeth or YHF.

    But this is all purely objective. Only time will tell where Wilco (The Album) will slot in the rankings of Wilco albums.

  11. Aaron:

    Nah, from Canada. Never even BEEN to Atlanta, GA (though I hope to get there on a motorcycle trip through the south…eventually.)

    There’s pretty much three of us in every city…at least there are here 🙂

  12. I’m not going to try to rank this Wilco record right now. Any rock fan knows that a really good album will surprise you over time. I can’t tell if this is in that category (like “Summerteeth,” for instance, or “A Ghost is Born”) or if it’s a record with a couple of good songs that will fade into the background over time (like “Sky Blue Sky”).

    But I do admire this record tremendously for the duo of “You and I” (one of the best love songs Tweedy has ever written) and “Black Wing,” which sounds to me like the tragic version of the same story. Takes a real artist/writer to get that far below the surface.

    As Tweedy sings:

    “You’re the deepest well/I’ve ever fallen into….”

  13. Upon first listen I find the new album to be pretty interesting–sonically perfect–and well…decidedly Wilco. I don’t think we’re going to get another Summerteeth (which I think may be the high-water mark) — or even another YHF. But this band, this current incarnation, has a particular sound and it’s quite enjoyable and on full-display on this latest offering. The band is always changing–but perhaps less so in the past couple of years. Is this current “stability” within the band an ingredient for stagnation? Time will tell. In the meantime–I’ll be digging on this.


  14. To those who believe Wilco (The Album) contains no phenomenal or noteworthy content; there are at least six standout tracks (Wilco (The Song), Bull Black Nova, You and I, You Never Know, Solitaire, and I’ll Fight) and the other five songs are not shoddy, eliciting more reverence than commonplace mediocre filler material. I still hold true to my hypothesis; this one’s a sleeper.

    And M. Garner is right; Wilco is immensely unpredictable. Just because Wilco (The Album) and other post-Bennett Wilco output doesn’t stay “in line” with the musical path paved by Summerteeth and YHF doesn’t make it less commendable, just different stylistically. Bands evolve (or de-evolve, for that matter), bands change.

  15. Thank you for the amazing review.
    Wilco is today the best american rock band
    and alive they are fenomenal

    my favorite of the new album is One wing.
    amazing lyrics and masterpiece pop melody

  16. his vocal chords are made of gold, but his face is just a little too old ….. screw the hipster kids, Wilco have been making ground breaking records since those fools were in diapers, and Wilco will still be making ground breaking records long after all these current buzz bands disappear …. let’s see pitchfork give a band’s 4th or 5th or 6th record a “best new music” label, then I’ll be impressed ( ie. Dinosaur Jr. ) all that other crap ? the kids with the tight pants and day-glo shirts can keep ….

  17. The reviews of this album are driving me insane. You are right that there are too many people looking for YHF part II, instead of allowing the band to make whatever record they want. If anyone has that right, it’s Wilco. And, jesus christ, is it really necessary to dismiss an album simply because Nels Cline doesn’t have a 3-minute+ guitar solo? I love the new album. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s by far my favorite album of this year and I’m not exactly a Wilco junkie. I honestly believe that the day will come when this particular album will be considered a classic. Thank god that Aquarium Drunkard gets it. However, in regards to “You Never Know,” I could have sworn that Tweedy sings, “act your age, give back your black medals and pearls.” Anywho, excellent review!!

  18. This is not a bad album. The band sounds amazing, their are interesting subtle sounds underlying many, if not all, of the songs, but I’m having a hard time with the lyrics. It is not that I want another YHF, I am happy Jeff is doing well and living healthy, but Jeff is capable of much better writing. Simplicity is almost always good, the Beatles “In My Life” is a prime example, but I feel like the vitality of Jeff’s message is undercut by the way he writes on this album. It is hard to be simple and not become sentimental. Jeff is walking the line that Dylan walked when he moved from his mid sixties sound to his early seventies work on New Morning and Self Portrait. Like those albums, some songs work lyrically, and others leave me with a WTF? feeling. I love Jeff, I love Wilco, but I was drawn to Wilco because of Jeff’s poetry. Lyrics like, “I’ll die for you” and “One wing will never ever fly,” exist too muh on the surface. On SBS Jeff developed a style of writing that was simplistic but could still send you into the ether, a style in which a simple lyric like “Maybe the sun will shine today” could send you soaring into the ether of your own experiences. It will be interesting to see if he can match that brilliant simplicity of SBS again, on Wilco(The Album) I feel he has fallen a little short. One major exception is Deeper Down.

  19. It’s fine to like this album. But liking/loving this album does not necessitate putting down YHF as less courageous or as being more mediocre, as the reviewer does. And many of these commenters seem to grasp on to this defensive position. Just because (The Album) comes no where near the greatness of Wilco’s best records (from Being There through AGIB), doesn’t mean you need to blame Pitchfork or hipsters for being people not getting off at “bejeweled pop-rock.”

    Pitchfork doesn’t need anyone to defend them, but @romeo — Spoon’s 4th album got Best New Music. Animal Collective’s 5th album got Best New Music. Dirty Projector’s 6th album got Best New Music. Bill Callahan, Radiohead, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Walkmen, Okkervil River all received the same grade with recent albums.

  20. I’m not digging the new album at all, though it is better than SBS. I have found the Wilco (The Album) and SBS to be pleasant in parts but overall fairly forgettable. Each album has one fantastic song (Impossible Germany and Bull Black Nova) and several other competent, mid-tempo songs with straightforward lyrics that failed to engage me. Based on my personal and non-replicable listening experience (with all the Heraclitusian [not a word] disclaimers that the above statement entails), the perfect label for the majority of the songs of both albums is Dad Rock. (You might explain to me why the label “Dad rock” is immature and idiotic. How can a label be immature? Do you mean to say that the people labeling the album are immature? That part is a little confusing.)

    In my opinion, people have focused to much on the lack of experimentation on the recent albums. My enjoyment of a Wilco song varies independently of the amount of experimentation on it. There are some simple Wilco songs that are among my favorite ever written (Far, Far Away, Jesus &c, Outta Sight Outta Mind and others). The problem isn’t that the new records lack experimentation, it is that (again, to me) they lack some ineffable quality that makes a great pop song. But writing a review that says “”Hate it Here” just didn’t grab me. I can’t explain why.”, isn’t very interesting to read so people start talking about addiction, migranes, yuppies staring into buildings, experimentation, Jay Bennett, and, I guess, Dad Rock.

    What I really don’t understand is the confrontational tone of the review. Why can’t you just explain why you like the album, instead of making ad hom attacks on everyone who doesn’t? The following line galls: “And if the sound of six of the world’s best musicians banging out spangled and bejeweled pop-rock doesn’t get you off, then you may want to reconsider your record collection.”

    So Wilco (The Album) doesn’t get me off. When I reconsider my record collection, what is it that I am supposed to be thinking about? What record am I lacking that would make me appreciate this album more?

    I still consider myself a pretty big Wilco fan, and I’m happy for everyone who loves this record. I wish that it made me feel the same way that YHF does, but it doesn’t. I really don’t see the need to call out people who don’t like it as “hipsters”, “paranoid yuppies”, or immature idiots.

    As an aside, I really love this site. I have been reading it for a while and it rarely disappoints.

  21. Shake —

    Thanks for the crits (seriously). I should begin by saying that I am operating from a defensive position. SBS was dismissed quickly and shunted by the people who made Wilco rich in 2002/4 (hipsters and P4K, yes, and I count myself among the first and sometimes wish I could among the second).

    I’m not saying that people who don’t like Wilco (The Album) are paranoid, or hipsters, or immature idiots. I’m answering what I think is the common contemporary bash against Wilco: namely, that they’re not intellectual and experimental enough anymore, that they’re not taking things seriously, and that they’re making something called “Dad Rock.” (I’ll explain my feelings on that term in a bit). As someone who adores YHF, I find myself wanting to listen to it less these days. A few key tracks aside (Man Who Loves You, Kamera), it’s simply not a very “fun” record. “Fun” is something that most indie rockers (i.e., the one-time majority of people buying Wilco records) are any good at. Myself included. And so my point is, Wilco (The Album) is bound to be dismissed by the “mainstream” indie media/zeitgeist/comments sections of most blogs as too simple, too quotidian, and Dad Rock. And I say there’s nothing wrong with simple or quotidian. It didn’t bother the Replacements or the Beatles, and it doesn’t bother me.

    There is, however, something wrong with the term “Dad Rock.” In my view, it’s a culturally insensitive/hateful term which implies that “Dads” listen to weak, lame, or otherwise square music. As someone whose Dad raised him on WIllie Nelson, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, etc, I find the notion that Dads automatically have poor/easily defined taste to be more than a little simplistic and foolish. Further, it implies that YHF/Animal Collective/anything cool exists on “our” plane, the level of 20somethings which is inherently cooler, more interesting, and more relevant than anything our Dads could possibly be into. Additionally, its usage shows that the user is more interested in the cultural cachet attached to music than the music itself. I.e., when dismissing SBS or (The Album) because they’re “Dad Rock,” you’re essentially saying, “I don’t like music that dads like, I like music that 20somethings like.” And when you say that, it’s not too far a jump to say that you don’t like music, you like the cachet that music provides you. Again, I’m extremely guilty of this, as many of my past reviews will tell you, but that doesn’t make it any less childish.

    Hence the closing point of my review. Music can be fun. If you only listen to music because it’s “challenging,” or because it’s different from whatever your mainstream is, then you’re only liking things based on an inverse of what other people like. You don’t actually like “something,” (note: I’m not assuming anything about you, personally, Shake, I’m speaking in the Royal You), you like “not something.” And so this mindset builds record collections that are overinterested in pithy emotions and short on songs about love, hope, and fun, because that’s what the overwhelming majority of pop songs are about. And there’s a good reason for that.

    Now, all of that being said, I do want to apologize if my tone or words offended you. It’s my intention only to provoke, not to wound, and to challenge people to let themselves have fun listening to a record. It’s been my experience that “challenge” is the correct word here, because allowing oneself to have fun is an oddly tough thing to do without disguising anything; it makes you very naked, and that’s a scary place for anyone to be.

    So, if you simply don’t dig on Wilco (The Album) because you don’t feel the songs, that’s fine, and I apologize for making such sweeping generalities. But my suspicion, Shake, is that the vast majority of people who visit music blogs are not in your position. This review was written both for them and to affirm those who are on the other side. I, personally, fall somewhere between.


  22. Marty,

    I wasn’t offended by anything that you wrote. No apologies are needed. As you state, your review was a response to people who dislike the recent Wilco albums for not being intellectual or experimental enough, which I would agree is a weak criticism. I was just trying to give the perspective of someone who doesn’t care about experimentation or intellectualism and who was just left cold by the new albums.

    Your criticism of the term “Dad Rock” is well-taken. (I’m not sure if you’ve read the Tweedy interview in the most recent NY Times Magazine, but he makes a similar point. Here’s the link in case anyone is interested: http://tinyurl.com/kpjl2a )

    Your review and follow-up raised some really interesting questions about why people like the kind of music that they like. I am not so naive to think that people do not factor in the social cachet of a particular artist when they are determining whether or not to leave a catty comment on a blog post. Having said that, I think that people generally listen to albums that they like. If people are not responding to the new Wilco albums, I think that the likeliest explanation is that they just don’t like the songs. There are probably people who are ripping Wilco on message boards and then listening to SBS on headphones when no one is looking, but it can’t be that many people, can it?

    I think that the reaction of fans to the most recent Radiohead album proves my point. There seems to be a consensus that it was Radiohead’s least experimental album since OK Computer. I think that Thom even referenced human beings on a couple of songs. As we know, “In Rainbows” was lauded by the press and loved by most of their fans. I would argue that that reception was due to the fact that the songs were really really good. If Radiohead released its version of SBS or Wilco (The Album), the critics and fans would complain about it and say that the new record sucks because Radiohead aren’t being experimental and they are in a holding pattern or whatever. If Wilco had released its version of “In Rainbows”, then critics and fans would say that sobriety has made Tweedy into a songwriting force, that the band doesn’t feel the need to prove itself by being weird anymore, etc.

    Anyway, I appreciate your post and response.

  23. I think this record is awesome. At first listen it hit me as unexpected. The first few listens I didn’t really know what to think. But I kept going back for more. Now I can’t get these songs out of my head. It’s got some great variety to it and some real gems. The band is really loving what they are doing and having fun with it. I’m bias because I am a huge fan, but I really like every album by Tweedy’s ever-evolving creation of Wilco (the band). Each one has a great story behind it and is crafted by some really wonderful and insightful musicians who truly love what they do.

    Having just seen the gang at Red Rocks, if you were there you would understand, this band is at a really great point in their career and there is definitely more unexpected gems to come. I’ll echo this sentence… “if the sound of six of the world’s best musicians banging out spangled and bejeweled pop-rock doesn’t get you off, then you may want to reconsider your record collection.”

  24. The “Dad Rock” term cracks me up, especially since many of the band members are now dads as are many of us listeners that have been on this ride with Jeff Tweedy since Uncle Tupelo (and before).

    Good album. Spot on review, for the most part.

  25. You think anything about this is new? This is far from the first album to present itself in this way. If you are so bedazzled by this album maybe you should reconsider your record collection. Any trace elements of The Velvet Underground or HAHAHA Television are you mistaking the sound of Cline’s guitar. The duet with Feist made me want to vomit. Wilco was great in Being There and Summerteeth, the rest is a shame.

  26. I’m glad to see someone else who likes Sonny with a chance as much as I do, Sonny is my favorite character on the show. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it!

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