Twelve minutes and four seconds. The same tempo, the same chords repeated over and over again. Acoustic guitar with some light piano touches and an unobtrusive rhythm section. Not much is happening, but everything is happening. One shouldnt leap to such broad conclusions from only a handful of listens, but One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smileys Boyfriend) may be Wilcos finest album closer yet. Its a credit to Wilco mainstay Jeff Tweedy, whose storytelling has rarely been stronger across a career spanning more than two decades. As great as the track is, the rest of The Whole Love, album number eight, is nothing to shake off.
Youll read articles in the coming weeks (if you havent already) saying that The Whole Love is a return to form or the bands best record in nearly a decade. There wont be any refuting of such sentiments in this article; most of the tracks borrow from different eras of the bands career, and the record marks their best since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. In addition to Tweedys skills as a writer, top marks have to go to members who are often overshadowed by the aforementioned frontman: the guitar king (Nels Cline) and the masterful man behind the drum kit (Glenn Kotche). And the bass playing of John Stirratt separates the album from the bands recent output.
Album opener Art of Almost is a refreshing, if not surprising, pat on the back. Eccentric blips and boops plug in here and there, while Stirratts bass line thumps its way out of the speakers by verse two, guiding Tweedys vocals and the cut-and-paste drumbeats to the song’s furious conclusion, elevated by Nels Cline at his most insane. The songs conclusion is simply chaotic compared to the controlled middle stretch of the track; the guitars fuzz about along with the rhythm section. Its the bands best opener since At Least Thats What You Said, a song that ends in similar fashion yet without being so, well, futuristic.
The album is not as experimental or detached after the opening cut, but that doesnt matter. As soon as the madness ends, the garage rock of I Might enters the fray, arms outstretched. Another crunchy bass line courtesy of Stirratt sits comfortably under Tweedys insistence that Its all right. Dark lyrics referring to pissing blood and setting kids on fire play over ’60s keyboards from Mikael Jorgensen.
Dawned on Me and Born Alone are cut from the same cloth musically but hail from different worlds lyrically. The former features the lines Ive been young/Ive been old and Ive been up/Ive been down. The latter offers up, I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels/Spit and swallowed opioid. Tweedy knows when to serve the melody and when to serve the lyrical imagery. Both songs work equally well because of this. The same can be said for the Tupelo-leaning tales spouted forth on Black Moon and Open Mind. Both are acoustic love ballads, heavy on the alt-country, and the former tells its tale in a more straightforward lyrical fashion than the other. Who cares? Each is beautiful in its own way. We all need to slow dance, eventually.
Certain tracks dont quite work here. Sunloathe and Capital City may remind listeners of Abbey Road or Magical Mystery Tour, but theyll likely have you going back to those albums instead. Rising Red Lung doesnt seem to go anywhere, sitting there waiting for the final two tracks. These three songs certainly sound pretty, courtesy of co-producers Tom Schick, Tweedy, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, but dont captivate as well as others.
The aforementioned One Sunday Morning is the most haunting track of Wilcos career. Its lyrically potent (Outside I look lived-in/like a mountainous shrine/How am I forgiven?/Oh, Ill give it time) and features two characters, a father and his son. The religious father condemns the sons less-than-spiritual beliefs, but when the father dies, the son concludes that his dad now knows he was wrong about heaven. To try and find agreement or possibility in such sentiment is akin to grasping how space never ends and numbers go on for infinity; its one of Tweedys finest moments as a songwriter.
The title track may be the albums secret weapon. It bounces along with Tweedys falsetto singing, I know that I wont be/the easiest to set free, but he wants to give love a chance. The whole love of the title isnt that hard to figure out. Its about knowing when to give all the love you have to someone or something. If listeners return the love even half as much as the band has dished it out, both parties will be highly satisfied.
Essential Tracks: Art of Almost, The Whole Love, and One Sunday Morning (A Song for Jane Smileys Boyfriend)”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.