Wilco :: The Whole Love

It used to be possible to think about a new Wilco record simply by noting how much enjoyment it yielded. AM, Being There, Summerteeth–these are all interesting records that are technically challenging and ambitious in their own ways, but they’re also primarily pop records, written and performed for our entertainment. That all changed with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, of course, when the Chicago group–of whom only Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, and Glenn Kotche remain, joined now by Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen, and Pat Sansone–deconstructed themselves and, perhaps along with it, the way we think about pop music as art. The literary critic T.W. Adorno famously said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz; those of us who deal in the less-serious world of indie rock might say that after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there can be no levity.

Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t shoulder all of the blame. The record was first made public on September 18, 2001, exactly one week after the planes. The lyrics that at the moment seemed so timely, so eerily prophetic–tall buildings shaking, the ashes of American flags–don’t seem nearly as prescient now as the record’s underlying sense of fear and melancholy. Tweedy’s singing–the mere act of his shaping a melody–while behind him the entire structure of traditional pop music fell apart in plain view seems now like the record’s truest act of heroism. The recent ten-year remembrances aside, our visual reminders have more or less disappeared, but it’s that underlying confusion, and the tension we feel as we try to hold it together, that still lingers, resonating like a string after the bow.

So it’s no surprise that Wilco has fallen on tough times, at least as far as the internet is concerned. Sky Blue Sky seemed to have been accepted on the condition that the group would not in the future replicate its contented, domestic strumming, and 2009’s Wilco (The Album) passed largely on Tweedy and Nels Cline’s tense guitar work in “Bull Black Nova.” While both albums–particularly Sky Blue Sky–were enjoyable enough in their own right, both lacked that sense of anxiety and conflict that lent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and, to a slightly lesser degree, A Ghost Is Born) a perceived sense of dignity and honesty. Quite simply, songs about folding clothes won’t fly anymore. In America, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to accept the possibility of innocence; that there might be some kind of simple grace in domestic life, say, seems vulgar in the face of what we now know about the world. We can never go back.

From the opening thromb of “Art of Almost” to the closing swishes of “One Sunday Morning,” the desire to find grace after pain is the overwhelming theme of The Whole Love. The record pushes and pulls between moments of confusion and fear and clarity and joy, rarely staying in any one place for long. “Art of Almost” gears up like a plane taking off–the clicking of Kotche’s muffled bass drum mirrors the visual tick of the ground passing by; Mikael Jorgensen lays down an engine thromb of keys until the song takes off in a swell of strings, breaking through into Tweedy singing almost by his lonesome. “No! / I froze / I can’t be so / Faraway from my wasteland,” he sings, as if cacophony were his blanket. The song tailspins into an unhinged guitar solo in the hands of Cline, accelerating at breakneck speed in its final moments.

Art of Almost” is one of the most exhilarating and terrifying songs the band has ever recorded, and while The Whole Love doesn’t bother trying to recreate its particular vigor, it does set the tone for what’s to come. “I Might” juxtaposes festival-ready harmonies against a raunchy organ that could have been lifted from any anonymous frat-rock anthem, while Iggy Pop’s scream–on loan here from “TV Eye”–punches up Tweedy’s vocal. “Dawned On Me” is the kind of loose good-time rocker that’s peppered recent Wilco records, but here the group coat the song in feedback. “I forget, then I know / I’d regret letting you go,” Tweedy sings as Sansone coos a harmony. “Sometimes I can’t believe how dark it can be.” Later, Tweedy will whistle half a bar of the melody, stopping halfway through to acknowledge the moment–“So on / And so forth.” It’s an honest moment in a remarkably honest song; it acknowledges the immense pain of loss without fully giving itself over to it. Human love here is a fragile thing, forever wobbling on the precipice of the void. And yet, it keeps moving.

The Whole Love closes with “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a twelve-minute narrative based around a simple acoustic guitar figure that slowly unfolds to reveal gentle vibes and light percussion. If “Like A Rolling Stone” was Dylan’s noisy kiss-off to the folk music scene and -tradition that raised him, “One Sunday Morning” is Tweedy’s inversed equivalent–the song revolves around a son’s recollection of the falling-out between he and his father. But where Dylan is cocksure, towering on warbling keys and a swagger of harmonica, Tweedy sings nearly under his breath; that repetitive guitar run and the rattling percussion are the closest thing to filigree the song allows for. “Something sad keeps moving / So I wandered around,” Tweedy sings shortly after the father’s death. “I fell in love with the burden / Holding me down.” The death of the father, the rejection of all he stood for, and the crackle in Tweedy’s voice–all are devastating. “What I learned without knowing / How much more I owe than I can give,” he sings as the song exhales. It’s a song of remorse, of a very deep love whose full expression comes in its final few minutes, the music continuing well after Tweedy has said his final word.

There’s a strange strength that permeates The Whole Love, even in its darkest moments. It’s the feeling of having come through a long something, and that feeling is only palpable when the length and breadth and pain of that something is fully acknowledged. We aged instantly and most of us have spent the past ten years trying to understand what exactly just happened to a world that we thought we had under control. “I am the driver at the wheel of the horror,” Tweedy sings in “Born Alone.” “Mine eyes’ deceiving glory / I was born to die alone.” The whole of The Whole Love comes down to the rejection of that one adjective, to the steady crushing of that one flattering deception. It is the question to which Mavis Staples’ Tweedy-penned song from 2010 is the answer: You are not alone.   words/ m garner


21 thoughts on “Wilco :: The Whole Love

  1. Insightful review, and upon first listen, a solid album…it feels right. I think a lot of the brilliance in YHF and “Ghost” stems from the influence of O’Rourke. I wonder how we would feel about “Sky Blue Sky” and “Wilco (The Album)” if they hadn’t followed YHF and “Ghost.”

  2. Excellent, EXCELLENT review of the record. I don’t think I could have put it better myself. Ghost is my favorite Wilco record personally but The Whole Love I feel is the group’s best album aside from the two they did with O’Rourke.

  3. You’re both absolutely right. Sonically, the influence of O’Rourke is what separates those two records from the rest of the catalogue. I’d completely forgotten about that.

  4. I don’t buy the whole “Quite simply, songs about folding clothes won’t fly anymore. In America, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to accept the possibility of innocence”, that’s both wrong and too clever by a half. Americans as a whole still eat up wholesome innocence… Glee, for example, is probably outselling Wilco. Of course, Wilco’s main audience probably isn’t mainstream America and their audience probably didn’t like “songs about folding clothes” before 9/11.

    Wilco don’t fail because of some post-911 cynicism. Wilco fail because the music they make without Bennett/O’Rourke is boring. That was the feedback they got after Sky Blue Sky, so they’ve started adding one difficult song to each album. But their hearts aren’t in it. Tweedy doesn’t have anything interesting to say and the music isn’t challenging enough.

  5. The reviewer is lifting so hard to draw a through-line from YHF and its retrofitted 9/11 “meaning” (ooh, ashes of american flags, shaking towers, songs written just for the WTC attacks, except they weren’t) to this album and how it reflects the sruggle to endure the last 10 years in America that he’s going to get a hernia. Record albums do not carry the weight of the world – they simply reflect one guy’s (or maybe six guys’) perspective of it. I’m fairly certain Jeff Tweedy would recoil at the notion that he could (or did with YHF) summarize the prevailing American sentiment then or now with a handful of songs. And as to the original stated premise, it is still quite possible “to think about a new Wilco record simply by noting how much enjoyment it yield(s)” – I do it all the time. It’s fun – the reviewer should try it sometime.

  6. Tom, if I may, I don’t think the author means Tweedy set out to “summarize” the American sentiment, I see it more of an oddly similar comparison. With all that’s happening in the world now, it’s a rather dark time with some sparkling moments that shine through just long enough to remind us that it’s not always been so dour. And one of Tweedy’s strengths has always been putting the common feelings we all have at one time or another into words and phrases that strike you deep.

    The record itself I find rather solid (the bonus tracks though? Not so much, blech). In fact, having shot the show here in DC a few days ago and being introduced to the songs live that way, I think I can safely say this is the first Wilco record since YHF I actually like. If I viscerally love a record, I’ll be able to listen through it on repeat when I first get it and find something new every time. This one, I’ve had that feeling, the couple previous ones, no way. There is enough variation and sameness overall that I’m not bored to tears like I was with the last couple of records. Plus, as the author notes, Tweedy’s writing is back up to speed and is interesting again, not just telling me about all the ways he keeps busy cleaning his house or how much Wilco loves ya baby. While that’s nice to hear, I expect more from Tweedy’s pen because I know how good he is.

    Lastly to the author: fucking brilliant piece of work you got here. Someone ever asks you for a writing sample, show ’em this.

  7. Erica,

    I must disagree with your assessment of this review. It is most certainly is not “a fucking brilliant piece of work.” It is overwritten and pretentious, and ends up being more of an attempt by the reviewer to demonstrate how he “gets it” when he had to invent the “it” to be gotten. As well as being a exercise in using 25-cent words for no apparent reason other than in an attempt to impress readers, such as using “juxtaposes” and “permeate” when “sets” and “runs through” would have been fine.

  8. Ha, since when are “juxtaposes” and “permeate” considered 25-cent words? I believe it’s called a vocabulary.

    Tom, I appreciate everyone’s opinion on AD, but overwritten and pretentious Garner’s piece is not. Take a breath, man.

  9. I like what Erica says about being introduced to the songs in a live setting. While I have not had the good fortune of seeing any of the new record played live (that’s Dec. 10th), my favorite Wilco document remains “Kicking Television”–which tends to get lost in the mix in these conversations. I would also make the case that the songs off the “lesser” recent studio albums are still great in a live setting, as I think most anyone who’s seen Wilco recently will tell you.

  10. Sky Blue Sky has produced it’s share of classics, most notably Impossible Germany but also Side With the Seeds. The album has aged exceptionally well, as all good works of art should, and had it come from a lesser band it would have been a work of genius.

  11. “In America, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to accept the possibility of innocence; that there might be some kind of simple grace in domestic life, say, seems vulgar in the face of what we now know about the world. We can never go back.’
    This is the same thing people said about Vietnam, and yes, this was on our land, but
    it seems to me that the only innocence we lost was the arrogance to think we were immune to what the rest of the world already lived with. In such times, the ‘simple graces’ are in fact a kind of salvation. They are what is left of our humanity.

  12. This is the best review of “The Whole Love” I’ve read yet. And I whole-heartedly agree with J. White: people may bash on “SBS”, and it’s not my favorite Wilco record, but Wilco is, first and foremost, a live band. The SBS songs are almost all pretty great in concert (Skot Nelson is also right: where would us Wilco/Nels fans be without “Impossible Germany”?)

    Music reviews (as with all art) are tremendously subjective. But what I hear on this record is mirrored in this review.

  13. I just want to pipe in and say I thought this was an outstanding review of the LP. This may be the best wilco entry since AGIB.

  14. Good review. BUT, IMNSHO the albumn it reminds me of is not YHF but Being There.
    Not sure why exactly – it’s not a sonic thing – there is an honesty to the music. Not trying…just being. Which as others note is about just enjoying it. That said BT unfortunately is (still) Wilco’s high watermark in terms of studio recording. And as much as I loved seeing them a year ago at the NAC their best performance out of the 7 times I’ve seen them remains at Another Roadside Attraction where outside of few UT tunes, and a killer version of Passenger Side, they mostly played tracks off BT.

    P.S. Tom If u think ur examples are 25 cent words u need an education.

  15. Whoa! Why so much bashing of “Hate if Here”? I love that track. Sure (The Album) was bland overall and everyone wants to get all warm and fuzzy about the guitar work on Impossible Germany from SBS, but the rest of that song is not so great. I think SBS has plenty of great tracks, though. From the start to the finish it flows and reflects Jeff and the band at that time as he describes in the short doc. “Shake it Off,” that was co-released on the website. I agree with the O’Rourke influence being signifficant and think that Born Agian in the U.S.A. requires mention among the great Tweedy/O’Rourke/Kotche albums, but this record is a breath of fresh air for me compared to recent Wilco or other folk/pop/indie/whateveryouwantocallit and I definitely gained some insight from this review. You don’t have to agree with everything, but your review of the review is telling more about you than about the article just the same way you believe Garner’s article tells more about him then the record. P.S. How’d they come up with the title Aquarium Drunkard, again?

  16. Bashing most recent album is the default setting for album reviewers desperately trying to like the new album more than they do. For proof look at any r.e.m. review since 1998. Or radiohead. Or Neil young. Or Ryan Adams. Or ‘insert name of any band that has more than three albums out since their so-called masterpiece’.

    Yeah, the whole love is good and will grow to be great. But record reviews continue to be dull, monotonous and wholly predictable.

  17. There are some stand out tracks on this album that rank up with Wilco’s best. Not everything hits the mark, but they’ve been around forever. They should be credited for still trying to change things up as evident on “Art of Almost”. Read our Wilco – The Whole Love Review.

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