Over a long and varied career, Wilco have reached a point where creative freedom and independence are integral to their status. Since the record label drama of 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, they gained a following not only for the quality of their music, but for standing up to a major record label and defending the integrity of their music. That this period also saw frontman Jeff Tweedy in rehab for addiction to painkillers is well-documented, but coincides with Yankee and it’s successor, 2004’s claustrophobic A Ghost Is Born, being widely regarded as Wilco‘s finest work. Tweedy, it seems, has been unfairly pinned down by the media as another artist who must suffer to create his best work.
Recent albums Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) saw line-up changes and a percieved “mellowing” in the band’s sound. Those statements may well be seen as a generalisation for the overall sound of those records, but are not necessarily true in terms of their musical or lyrical weight and ambition. Those albums still contained great nuggets of high-class songwriting, but where the band previously clouded their message with noise and layered arrangements, they now chose to relax the harshness and let the songs breathe. So this album represents a possible turning point in the band’s catalogue.
First impressions are that the noisy restlessness has returned. “Art Of Almost” unravels over 7 minutes, from a barely there, electronically-propelled beat into a full on Krautrock explosion. Guitarist Nels Cline sounds as if he has melted his instrument at the song’s close, as the band rack up a climax to top pretty much anything they’ve recorded previously. Lead off single “I Might” bounces along in a sinister yet summery way, Tweedy spitting out obtuse lyrics – “Your snowcone, it was pissing blood”, “You won’t set the kids on fire, oh but I might”. The jazz-flecked “Capitol City” throws some interesting sound collages around its easy-going feel.
As we reach the meat of the album, there seems to be a real understanding between the whole band – the arrangements are full and gloriously produced, and there are countless surprises to be found on repeat listens. The irresistible pop of “Dawned On Me” and the lush Beatles-esque “Sunloathe” are drowning in layer upon layer of intricate musicianship from these talented individuals. Make no mistake – these are Tweedy’s songs – but the band as a whole are a unique and cohesive unit.
The quality keeps up through the whole record – “Born Alone” may be the best power-pop song Tweedy has written since “I’m Always In Love” (especially for it’s awesome endless downward spiral of chords at the end) and “Rising Red Lung” is a delicious, acoustic-tinged treat. Cline shows his worth to the band here too, adding layers of delicate melody and atmosphere to Tweedy’s folkish tune. The most interesting effort is saved for last however.
Closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” doesn’t reveal it’s charms on the first listen through its generous 12 minute length. But stick a good pair of headphones on and hidden depths reveal themselves – a very simple tune cycles round and round repeatedly, as Tweedy sings in a low register of a dark, strained relationship between a father and son. When Tweedy sings “I feel relief, I feel well” he may well be in character, but there’s a ring of truth to it. It’s an incredibly powerful piece, which showcases both immense confidence and ambition in Tweedy’s songwriting. Those who doubted Wilco and feared for their ability to experiment in recent times will find much to rejoice in here. It seems Tweedy is quite happy being healthy again, thanks very much.
Release Date – 27th September 2011