Wilco Cousin

Wilco – Cousin (dBpm)

After years of left turns, mixed reactions, and the doom of being designated Dad Rock, many have wondered, “When will the ‘old’ Wilco return?”  For the Chicago-based band that formulated the album of an era (2002’s art-rock masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), the question is not exactly answered with Cousin, but it may just stop people from asking.

On their last record Cruel Country, the six-piece plunged themselves into the depths of alt-country, the genre they emerged from and yet had previously worked so hard to shake off.  Now, as they reach up for air, they fish out sounds and influences from across their broad career and add in some new ones too.

Nearly two decades after last utilising an external producer, the band reached out to Welsh musician Cate Le Bon to work with them on their new album.  After being sent a range of demos and rough sketches, Le Bon curated a catalogue of songs that would become Cousin, stripping back and reinventing much of the material while working closely with the band in their Chicago studio The Loft.  As a result, instead of the ‘live in the studio’ atmosphere that defined Cruel Country, Cousin presents much more of a layered feel, like a carefully constructed collage.

The opening track ‘Infinite Surprise’ demonstrates this well, gradually adding new sounds into the fold.  Click-clacking percussion and wailing guitars threaten to build into a chaotic crescendo, but instead, the song crashes back down before concluding with popping static.

Ten Dead’ employs a sound that’s more straightforward, but this serves the lyrics well.  A dreary drumbeat gives the impression of wading through mud, as frontman Jeff Tweedy wearily recounts hearing the news of yet another mass shooting, and so decides to head back to bed.

Pittsburgh’ opens with nothing but an acoustic guitar, then a blast of noise repeatedly blares before receding, like the sudden sound of a fire alarm that you inevitably ignore.  Then there’s the lead single ‘Evicted’, where twangy guitar and light-hearted lyricism lament a lost love.

The guitar is the star throughout much of Cousin.  Sadly there are no wild extended solos from maestro guitarist Nels Cline this time around, but there are still a plethora of different techniques utilised.  Whether it’s the shimmering strumming giving the impression of a setting sun on the aptly titled ‘Sunlight Ends’, or the folk-tinged feel of ‘A Bowl and a Pudding’, a lot has been achieved with six strings (and likely quite a few effects pedals and post-production magic.)

With many of Wilco’s albums concluding on a downer, it’s refreshing to hear an upbeat ending in ‘Meant To Be’, a poetic tale of pining for a past partner, high on hope of a reunion:  “Holding our hearts together/Keeping to ourselves an empty sea/So we can believe/Our love is meant to be”.

You see, the ‘old’ Wilco never really left.  That’s because there has never been a fine line between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, and nowhere better is this illustrated than on Cousin.  And while the album may not be their best, it proves they can still pack a creative punch after almost 30 years of consistently innovative songwriting.

Cousin is out now via dBpm.

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