For the first time in their history, Wilco has sustained the same lineup for back-to-back albums. This creates camaraderie with one another the band has never been able to experience before, a connection that is on display for their audience at every one of their shows. You can hear it on re-worked versions of earlier songs on the live album Kicking Television, as well as the recently-released concert film, Ashes of American Flags. Everyone has something to do. They follow each other on the stage so well, pick up on cues that must be sent telepathically, and succeed in making these songs we’ve heard so many times before soar at their beckoned call.
So why don’t we hear any of this on Wilco (The Album)?
Now Wilco’s seventh studio album is far from a bad album. However, much like its predecessor, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, it does not take advantage of its six-member lineup. We don’t expect to hear “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” on every track, we would just be content with a fuller sound. The band seems to be resting on their laurels when it comes to much of their new material, but what makes it all the more frustrating are the times where they show they are still able to push beyond the expected. So while Wilco is better than the valley that is Sky Blue Sky, it falls short of the peaks their earlier masterworks reached.
The album gets off to a good start, and keeps it going for nearly half the album. By now we’ve grown familiar with the kind-of-title track, “Wilco (the song)”. It was the only song that could lead off the album, and it’s nothing like epic-openers from the past (“Misunderstood”, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “At Least That’s What You Said”). It’s a love letter to fans, pop-overload, and will have you grinning from ear-to-ear. This is not your older brother’s Jeff Tweedy, suffering through personal issues. This is a Tweedy who has beaten his demons, and can assure anyone down on their luck that no matter what, the Chicago-based band will always be there for you. Kotche’s upbeat drumbeats match wits with Cline’s echoing guitar in-between verse and chorus, so “Start up your stereo/Put on your headphones/Before you explode” because “Wilco will love you, baby.”
An interesting counterpart to such a hook-filled song is the second track, “Deeper Down”, which sports a rather schizophrenic sound, with its well-crafted, cut-and-paste transitioning. Amidst its Mark Mothersbaugh-inspired keyboards is a story of a knockout punch to a boxer, beginning with an “insult of a kiss” to the “comfort of a kiss.” It’s the production here that wins out in the end.
”One Wing” is a song that the band has been playing frequently since last year’s Lollapalooza. The lead guitar at the beginning sounds like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, taking us to a relationship that has run its course. It’s not an angry song, far from it. The singer admits some responsibility, confessing, “You were a blessing/And I was a curse/I did my best not to make things worse/For you.” He’s finally accepted that “One wing/Will never ever fly, dear/Neither yours nor mine, I fear/We can only wave goodbye.” The album version has dropped the extended jam at the end, opting instead for repeats of the chorus. While the jam session sounded great live, the harmonies work really well on record.
The fourth track, ”Bull Black Nova”, tells us what would happen if the murder fantasy of “Via Chicago” came to fruition. With its repeated playing of one note on the piano and John Stirratt’s thumping bass line, “Nova” plays cousin to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. The combination of such unrelenting music and storytelling is perfect, with Tweedy’s elevating paranoia over what he has done driving the listener to delirium. It’s the “Tell-Tale Heart” of the Wilco catalogue (“It’s coming down/Coming off the shoulders/What have they found?/I wonder if they know?”), and arguably the best song on the album. When played live, wonder if this will segue way into “Spiders” or vice versa?
How do you follow-up a song about the mind of a killer? A love duet, of course! “You and I”, featuring Feist, is Wilco at its Summerteeth-best. Some may find it syrupy and many eyes will roll at the lyrics, but others will hear some sincerity of someone who has been married or in a relationship for a long time. “You and I/We might be strangers/However close we get sometimes/It’s like we’ve never met”, but this couple tells each other, “I think we can take it/All the good with the bad/Make something that no one else has/But you and I.” It’s a comedown song from its predecessor, and makes no apologies for being a pretty pop song.
So far, so good, right? Well, the music of George Harrison can be heard in “You Never Know” (“I don’t care anymore” substituting for the hallelujahs of “My Sweet Lord”), a song that was played at Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide concerts back in January. Unfortunately, like much of the second half of the album, it’s passable at best. Couple this with “My Country Disappeared”, featuring Tweedy and Co. attempting their best impersonation of The Band, and the listener is left wanting to put on “I Shall Be Released” instead.
We are granted a brief reprieve from disappointment with the Tupelo-esque acoustics of “Solitaire”, featuring double-tracked vocals reminding us of the late Elliott Smith. It’s about a man recalling his ignorant youth, and lamenting his lonely present. Tweedy is on top form here, with this chilling couplet as a primary example: “The universe with hands unseen/I was cold as gasoline.”
The rest of the album is filler, with only scattered moments here and there worth remembering. Sky Blue Sky’s terrible closer, “On and On and On” (“On/And on/And on/We’ll stay together yeah”), gets an unintentional re-do here as “I’ll Fight” (“I’ll go/I’ll go/I’ll go/I’ll go for you I’ll fight…”). “Sonny Feeling” tries to give the second half of the album a “Shot in the Arm”, but comes up sounding like Mark Vieha’s “Way to Go” from Teen Wolf (Styles!). The final song contains various lines beginning with “Ever-“, and is appropriately titled, “Everlasting”. The horns that kick in during the second half are welcomed here, as are the flickering notes on guitar that close the album out.
There is much to love, but almost as much to care less about on Wilco (The Album). It’s no doubt a recommended listen, but before long, you’ll be skipping tracks left and right. Be content for now with a still-great live band, who still have a lot left to offer. We just haven’t heard this lineup’s full potential.
One doesn’t know where they go after this, or whether there will be another lineup shuffle, but just remember that whether or not you like this album, Wilco will love you…
Wilco (The Album) full album stream