The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

Image“…it seems a lot harder to make records that sound good than it should be. When you listen to most of the records that really had an impact on you, they always seem to be from a different era. And it really felt like nobody was making records that sounded like that anymore. I still don't think that this record sounds as good as that period of music. I still don't have any clue why. All I'm saying is I feel like we've gotten close enough for it to be comfortable to listen to.” – Jeff Tweedy, Pitchfork Interview, 5-8-07

A great divide exists between so-called “classic rock” and what is regrettably labeled “alternative” or “experimental” these days.  Much like subduction zones in plate tectonics, it seems that around 1979—with the release of Joy Division’s landmark album Unknown Pleasures—what passed for radio, and subsequently established the foundations of modern classic rock, suddenly was crushed by the specter of The Next Big Thing.  Sure, this type of sales & marketing had been going on for years, but radio was still playing bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols, despite their artsy or noisy inclinations.

Then suddenly and almost without warning, the music “industry” began doing business in a manner much like Wal-Mart, i.e. squeezing out all of the small labels while simultaneously controlling an artist stable that could fill Yankee Stadium.  Soon, a hit song wasn’t a hit until some bigwig said so, and if your band wasn’t lucky enough to win some asshole’s favor, tough cookies.  The next 20 years would see major labels tightly control everything once public about music while companies like Clear Channel bought everything else, from billboards to music venues.  Simultaneously, MTV popped up, creating a brand new dimension of fame: the image-conscious artist.  In the span of a few years, classic rock officially died out and was replaced by The Next Big Thing which, in an age of music television (oxymoron) and corporate artists (bigger oxymoron), was infrequently a musician with anything interesting to say or do. 

Occasionally, certain bands were too good at their craft to be ignored.  U2, REM, Metallica, The Police, Talking Heads, Guns ‘N Roses, etc., all managed to break through crushing professional barriers on sheer talent alone.  Still, the radio was mostly dominated by corporate-sponsored acts who managed to split an entire generation of music fans into two groups: A) those who became jaded hipsters and listened to Sonic Youth-type bands; or B) those who didn’t realize anything was wrong and continued lining up for their daily force-feeding.

And force-fed they were.  Remember Hair Metal?  Remember Vanilla Ice?  “Popular” music was pretty much as bad as the Iran Contra Affair in those days.  But fear not, intrepid music fans…your saviors were on their way. 

One could make a solid argument that Nirvana and the Internet were and are the two most powerful forces in popular music over the last 20 years, with the former destroying everything that came before and the latter destroying major labels by killing their marketing techniques and stealing from their profit margins.  Finally, the corporate tsunami of shit is subsiding, and classic rock is once again being produced in the here and now.  Of course, that isn’t to say classic rock wasn’t produced over the last 26 years, but merely that it wasn’t identified as such at the time and it probably won’t ever be played on classic rock stations.  Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just going to have to accept that the people who own radio aren’t going to capitulate so easily and DEFINITELY aren’t going to rewrite a history they paid good money to create.

Luckily, labels like Reprise, who house numerous underground heroes of classic rock, also nurtured Wilco, a band who consistently produce music that I would consider legendary, from their earliest records—A.M. and Summer Teeth— to their magnum opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to their recent output—A Ghost Is Born, Kicking Television—and the subject of this review, Sky Blue Sky, the most consistent release of their career.

I’m not going to lie.  I stole this record off of Limewire.  I wanted to hear it months in advance, but also I plan on buying it anyway.  A conscience will not get you in on the ground floor of anything.

Listening to Sky Blue Sky I often find myself asking whether guitar solos and jamming are the only major elements necessary for a band to achieve that classic rock sound.  If that’s all it takes, then half the bands on MySpace—that conveniently are able to describe their sound as “classic rock”—are destined for Cleveland.  Thankfully, there’s also gotta be a sweet pop song somewhere in there, and only certain people are capable of writing something addictive. 

Jeff Tweedy is one of those people.  Summer Teeth is filled to the brim with pop songs elaborated by rock ‘n roll sensibilities.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is just a bunch of tasty acoustic tracks with minor adjustments and noise curtains attached.  Take away all the window dressing and I still hear brilliance.  “Jesus Etc.” flows underneath gorgeous strings and a mid-tempo bass-line, but it’s still just a delicate Tweedy poem. 

Sky Blue Sky somehow strikes me as different.  Whereas A Ghost is Born came across like Neil Young on crack, this latest record possesses a sunny disposition, an uplifting spirit that makes me smile effortlessly.  Very little of it reeks of the self-possessed, down-and-out Tweedy of old.  And to hear him talk about it, apparently the album title is no joke.  He’s off drugs, off cigarettes, getting in shape, and all-around pleased to be alive.

And it shows.  The album opens with the line, “Maybe the sun will shine today.  The clouds will blow away.”  Uncharacteristically, Tweedy does not follow that sentiment with anything disheartening or plain old fucked up.  Here, he is not trying to break hearts anymore or fight loneliness.  He’s trying to share a newfound enthusiasm with his fans, as if to say it’s alright to be happy now, people. 

The lyrics aren’t the only thing that’s sunny here, either.  “You Are My Face” soars atop brilliant and blinding guitar solos and compulsive rhythms, delving into the same territory as much of A Ghost but minus the cranking and crackling riffs.  It’s very smooth and definitely closer to a Steely Dan track or Wings than Neil Young. 

“Impossible Germany” carries on the same enthusiasm and epic tone of the album, with some of the weirder lyrics and more fun, laid back guitar work.  Would it surprise any long-time Wilco fans to know that the first line after “Impossible Germany” opens is, “Unlikely Japan”?  Coming from the same band who created the lines, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9/Once in Germany someone said nein,” I doubt it.

The first actually abrasive track comes with “Shake It Off”, where the chorus devolves into a stop/start section and sounds closer to the previous album than anything else presented here.  I’ve read that some people consider it to be Grateful Dead inspired, but frankly I don’t hear that at all.  It’s much choppier and ruder than anything I’ve heard from Jerry and Co. 

The finest tracks here are the ones that do the most with the least, as usual.  “Walken” is an old school traveling song with a very bluesy feel and a minimalist structure.  It’s fun and uncomplicated lyrics are vintage Tweedy, and the overall feel of the track is that of pure mastery.  Wilco is clearly in top form here, able to churn out a pitch perfect classic rock inspired track with relative ease, and burying it near the end of the album, much like “Theologians” on A Ghost

Lead single “What Light” provides the most heroic and self-referential lyrics of Tweedy’s recent output, declaring profoundly, “And if the whole world’s singing your songs/ And all of your paintings have been hung/ Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.”  Thinking about it some more, I’m pretty sure that, despite the fact that Sky Blue Sky is a purely musical album, and one where I won’t be singing along, but rather, humming, that wonderful sentiment near the close of the album is possibly the truest thing Tweedy has ever written. 

Sky Blue Sky comes out on May 15th in the US.