Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Work and Wilco

Sky Blue Sky & Blue Sky Blue, by Wilco, Nonesuch Records, 2007

My very first experience with Wilco was one late fall day when I found myself home all alone. Having nothing very pressing to do, I got high and went out to rake leaves.

An enormous soggy carpet covered our front and back yards; the wind was blowing hard enough to make the chore even more tedious; and occasional rain sprinkled the scene. But winter was quickly approaching and I knew if the leaves didn’t get raked today, they’d never get raked. Hence the proactive use of recreational drugs – puts you in a different headspace and makes an unpleasant task considerably less dull.

Anyway, so, I’d been hearing about Wilco for a while and the number of times it’d come up recently lead me to get Yankee Hotel Foxtrot out of the library for a test spin. From the very first sounds of track one “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” a warbling kind of feedback hum with a child’s piano tinkling beautifully over it, I was entranced. There are very, very few albums I listened to as intently as I listened to that record. Almost completely unconscious of what I was doing, I managed to rake the entire front yard in a hypnotic spell, my head full of music. I listened to that CD two more times in a row as I cleaned the back yard spotless.

If this was what Wilco was like, then I was hooked.

I quickly went out and snatched up the other three Wilco albums. What a surprise. With the exception of some similarities between the first record A.M. and the second, the double length Being There, the definitive Wilco album doesn’t actually exist. Their debut sounds much like the previous band most of the members were in, Uncle Tupelo. The second has elements of that alt-country sound interspersed with a much harder rocking counterpoint. Summerteeth, their third outing, is a highly polished bit of pop ephemera with a couple acoustic numbers that only vaguely harkens back to what preceded it.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot broke the mold in a new experimental direction, the songs being alternative rock meshed with alt-country and found sound collages. The only thing that holds these four albums together as the art of one band is Jeff Tweedy’s plaintive voice and quirky lyrical turns.

YHF’s follow up, A Ghost is Born, clearly the product of Tweedy’s increasing addiction to painkillers, depression, and debilitating migraines, takes that experimentation a little further, but piles on self-absorbed indulgences including long, long, looonnnnggg unnecessary guitar solos (some songs even have multiple solos). The whole effect is a bit vaporous. The stand out track, “Theologians,” the song from where the album gains its title clearly channels Tweedy’s self-destructive impulses and the whole effect of the album is one long, incoherent suicide note.

This theory is given ample weight with the band’s sixth original album, Sky Blue Sky, a near monochromatic composition of exhausted survivorship and recovery. Generally well-received, this record has been panned by certain critics who’d just as likely have preferred Tweedy kill himself creating even further musical abstractions – no doubt proof in their mind of his “genius.”

I’ll admit, it took me quite a while to warm up to Sky Blue Sky too. In part, I think I’ve never gotten over my initial crush on the band that windy, rainy leaf-raking day, but with time (just over one whole year, actually) the solidity and near-greatness of this CD have become more apparent. The first listen put me off with how much it sounded like AM radio-friendly “classic rock,” the kind of stuff they currently sell on thirty-minute, late night infomericals. I was still craving the kick I’d gotten from YHF and this wasn’t delivering. A couple of the negative reviews I’d read tagged the album as “dad-rock,” a term that I resisted heartily (perhaps even because it might have fitted to uncomfortably close to home).

Off and on over the next twelve months, I’d put the album on, tap my toes with a few numbers, but it never clicked. It was accomplished and pleasant aurally, but it never felt right.

Then late one night at home, as a repainting transformation was turning what used to be my office into our guest room, a random iPod shuffle brought up “Theologians” and “Sky Blue Sky,” the two album title-lending tracks back to back. The continuity struck me. The songs went from

I’m going away
Where you will look for me
Where I'm going you cannot come
No one's ever gonna take my life from me
I lay it down
A ghost is born
A ghost is born
A ghost is born


With a sky blue sky
This rotten time
Wouldn’t seem so bad to me now
Oh, I didn’t die
I should be satisfied
I survived
That's good enough for now.

The transition, the change of perspective, the shift from despair to fragile, just clinging to hope, accepting what comes for what it is, that caught my attention in a way the album hadn’t before. I undid the shuffle feature and listened to the album from beginning to end.

Like before, with the leaves, the songs stole me away from where I was, what I was doing. Tweedy’s lyrics are here less opaque, very concrete in their documentation of lost love, lost chances, the aftermath of the a person’s crash and burn. At times playful (“Walken” and “Hate It Here” come to mind, especially the former with its opening beer barrel piano), at times somber (“Leave Me Like You Found Me”), the songs manage to sound varied but to touch upon the same general theme. There is a sense of one break, one mood that hums constantly under the surface here.

The music, while softer and more classic rock than previous Wilco albums, is quite catchy. The opening notes of the album on “Either Way” are as gentle and as easy-come-easy-go as the lyrics. This forms a kind of soft bracket with “On and On and On,” the closing track circling the death of Tweedy’s mother as its subject matter. “You can't deny even the gentlest tide,” he sings at one point, an apt summation of the album’s content resignation.

There is a clear jam-band aesthetic in some arrangements, with the longer guitar solo passages fitting in more naturally than their declarative counterparts on A Ghost is Born. It is easy to see that much of this album was written specifically with longer form playing in live settings in mind. While the current state of guitar solos in popular music is fairly lame – either mockable tracks from dinosaurs crawling back to prominence from the hair metal days of the eighties or only slightly funkier versions of the basic melody, played poorly by the common crop of radio duffers – here Tweedy is ably assisted by Nels Cline and Pat Sansone. The previous mentioned “Hate It Here” sports not one but two dueling guitar solos.

Where in the band’s previous efforts, this tendency toward solos frittered the listener’s time away in what felt like aimless and pointless noodling, here the work is tighter, hewing closer to the songs instead of disappearing into the ether. Plus, quite simply, where those solos jangled around, these rock out solid and hard, moving you in the way the best music can.

The twelve track album is joined by a five song EP, Blue Sky Blue, which features three new tracks and two live versions of “Impossible Germany” and “Hate It Here.” The first track off the EP, “The Thanks I Get” is one of Wilco’s best rocking out tracks and has been a majorly overplayed song on my morning commute. Softer and more serious “One True Vine,” the last studio cut from the EP has a similar feel to the last album track, though the focus has shifted to a rewarding relationship.

All in all, Sky Blue Sky comes off as a great sleeper album, despite its forays into large slabs of guitar rock. It took a long time for me to finally come around, but I have – with a vengeance. In the last month or so, hardly a day has gone by where I haven’t listened to at least one song off the album, though usually it’s the entirety. Tweedy’s latest has seriously entered my consciousness in a way I’ve longed for since that first time, standing out there in the yard, rake in hand, transfixed by what I was hearing, completely swept off my feet.


A & D said...

Weird! I listened to 'Side with the Seeds' on my way home on the bus today. I love the song, but I can't stand how it ends because it just seems to climax to this thing, and then thats it. I'm so glad you've written a review on Wilco. I've had some really good times with YHF playing in the background. If you ever find yourself in a stoned leave raking situation again, refrain from the Bright Eyes album 'Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground'. You will just sit on the back step staring at the yard thinking "shit.. I don't even know if anything is worth it anymore, especially these leaves". Then you'll sit there until it gets dark, paranoid, and worried that someone may see you and want to converse with you.

The Critic said...

Did not like.

red said...

I think the only time I've listened to Wilco was during a visit with the Critical family. I can't say it made much of an impression. But, I have learned to appreciate the Mountain Goats, so maybe I should give Wilco a try.

A & D said...

Hahaha, I read your Bright Eyes review, and I disagree with you on some things about them(him). It is clear that he has a wretched voice though, I do agree with that completely. You can be absolutely ruthless in some of your reviews.. like chop your balls off, ruthless.

The Critic said...


When you heard Wilco, it was, unsurprisingly, during a listening period when I was trying to make sense of A Ghost is Born. I remember it specifically.

Trust me on this new(er) album. Fantastic.

The Critic said...


Hit that "Blue Sky Blue" link up there and get yourself some free yummy goodness from a fellow Chicagoan.

A & D said...

Thanks Critic,
I didn't even have that album, I had no idea that it existed. I remember when I searched Wilco on soulseek a while back looking to complete my collection and that came up, but I just assumed it was a typo due to the similar spelling.

red said...

My local library has Sky Blue Sky. I'll have to give it a listen.