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 shouldn’t leap to such broad conclusions from only a handful of listens, but “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” may be Wilco’s finest album closer yet. It’s 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.
You’ll read articles in the coming weeks (if you haven’t already) saying that The Whole Love is a “return to form” or “the band’s best record in nearly a decade.” There won’t be any refuting of such sentiments in this article; most of the tracks borrow from different eras of the band’s career, and the record marks their best since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. In addition to Tweedy’s 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 band’s 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 Stirratt’s bass line thumps its way out of the speakers by verse two, guiding Tweedy’s vocals and the cut-and-paste drumbeats to the song’s furious conclusion, elevated by Nels Cline at his most insane. The song’s conclusion is simply chaotic compared to the controlled middle stretch of the track; the guitars fuzz about along with the rhythm section. It’s the band’s best opener since “At Least That’s 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 doesn’t 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 Tweedy’s insistence that “It’s 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 “I’ve been young/I’ve been old” and “I’ve been up/I’ve 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 don’t quite work here. “Sunloathe” and “Capital City” may remind listeners of Abbey Road or Magical Mystery Tour, but they’ll likely have you going back to those albums instead. “Rising Red Lung” doesn’t 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 don’t captivate as well as others.
The aforementioned “One Sunday Morning” is the most haunting track of Wilco’s career. It’s lyrically potent (“Outside I look lived-in/like a mountainous shrine/How am I forgiven?/Oh, I’ll give it time”) and features two characters, a father and his son. The religious father condemns the son’s 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; it’s one of Tweedy’s finest moments as a songwriter.
The title track may be the album’s secret weapon. It bounces along with Tweedy’s falsetto singing, “I know that I won’t be/the easiest to set free,” but he wants to give love a chance. The “whole love” of the title isn’t that hard to figure out. It’s 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 Smiley’s Boyfriend)”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.