Written by: James Crothers, Special to CC2K
With their latest record, Wilco joins the ranks of Mötorhead, Black Sabbath and, most famously, Bad Company by naming not just the album after the band, but also a track from it as well. Tongue-in-cheek though it may be, Wilco (The Album) seems, at first, to be an attempt by Wilco (The Band) to shake up the usual Wilco formula (check out that cover!), and try a new approach. Frontman Jeff Tweedy has even said the band will, “allow [themselves] a bit more leeway in terms of sculpting the sound [of the record],” and they use, “the studio as another instrument.” It’s a strange declaration, especially for anyone who has listened to the band's breakthrough record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and/or seen the documentary of its creation, I'm Trying to Break Your Heart. Wilco has always used the studio to create a unique sonic experience that truly separates itself from its alt-country origins.
Wilco (The Album) turns out to be a very appropriate title for the album because it sounds like a very well rounded Wilco record. Wilco (The Song) leads off the album as a wildly catchy pop track that is a love letter to the fans. Its a theme song for the band that will cement itself into the consciousness of even the most casual of listeners.
“Do you dabble in depression?
Is someone twisting a knife in your back?
Are you being attacked?
Oh, this is a fact that you need to know:
Wilco'll love you, baby”
The record then does an about face in with Deeper Down, a modularly constructed song featuring Tweedy's somber vocals and an aching pedal-steel guitar and an organ that seems to have been borrowed from Mark Mothersbaugh while he took a break from scoring the next Wes Anderson film. The song structure doesn't doesn't so much flow from verse to chorus, as it does step from one to the next, which is a nice contrast to the rest of the album.
One Wing is beautifully poetic song about a relationship that won't work. Tweedy says that he always knew the pair would separate, but they won't be the same without each other. Early live versions of the song differ from the final studio track, specifically towards the end, where the chorus is repeated for the final minute of the track. The lead guitar work gets fuzzier and fuzzier, as Jeff wishes his former partner “Bye-bye.”
“One wing, will never fly, dear
Neither yours, nor mine, I fear
We can only wave goodbye”
The Album takes another turn with Bull Black Nova, a track that features a monotonous keyboard riff and the mental ramblings of an accidental murderer and his subsequent coverup attempt. Its been likened to A Tell-Tale Heart and Tweedy really sells it with his voice losing stability in his descriptions of the blood everywhere, and panic begins takes over song climaxing with screaming vocals and vicious nails-on-chalkboard guitar work.
“Its in my hair, there's blood in the sink
I can't calm down, I can't think
I keep calling, there's blood in the trunk
I can't calm down…”
Of course the perfect follow up to a song detailing all the places one might find the blood from an accidental murder would be a love duet with Canadian singer, Leslie Feist. The two met at the 50th Grammy Awards, and expressed a mutual appreciation for each other's work which lead to the collaboration. You and I is a sweet pop track that will induce head swaying and release the anxiety built up by Bull Black Nova. Tweedy and Feist's voices work well together and are assisted by sunny melodies before being lead out by a Wilco trademark effect laden guitar.
You Never Know is at the beginning of the point in the album where things start to lose steam; in fact only two of the last seven tracks are any on par with the first half of the record. You Never Know is a kind of, “get over yourself anthem,” sings about how each generation seems to be under the impression that they're the ones responsible for bringing about the end of the world. Apple Scruffs will recognize Wilco took heavy inspiration from George Harrison's My Sweet Lord both vocally and instrumentally in the crafting of this tune. Solitaire is a truly beautiful track from start to finish, with wonderful Nick Drake fingerpicking leading the song in, complimented with the same pedal-steel guitar from Deeper Down to a much different effect and Tweedy's tender vocals.
While many of the songs on the album are by no means original or earth shatteringly creative, they are, for the most part, well crafted and enjoyable. The inconsistency of the tracks becomes more apparent as the album progresses, particularly at the end. Songs lose steam, and at times seem dispassionate. On a whole it features all walks of Wilco, from the good to the not so good, the experimental, to the alt-country sound that the band had at their start. Its a good record, but not a great one. Fans will be pleased at times, and disappointed at others, and it has enough catchy pop to draw the ear of the casual listener as well.
That being said, Rolling Stone will give it 4 stars and call it a modern day classic.
Wilco (The Album) is set to be released June 30th, and can be streamed from the band's website in its entirety. The album leaked May 13th and in response the band has asked that early adopters make a charitable donation to the Inspiration Corporation, an organization that helps low-income families in the band's native Chicago.