Imagine spending over two decades in the American music industry, selling over a million records, winning two Grammys, going through a half dozen band members, and kicking a drug habit. And after all that, you still can’t hear one of your songs on the radio.
Such is the plight of Jeffrey Scott Tweedy, the band leader of Chicago’s Wilco. It seems the only way for Tweedy to keep going is to keep making music and, in the process, to keep honing his band’s sound. Wilco have been pinned with many descriptive labels over the years, but for their seventh studio album, Wilco (The Album), they let everything hang out. The result is an album that is nearly perfectly balanced and yet entirely unable to be categorised (sorry, but even “experimental” won’t do this time around).
Wilco (The Album) represents a recent reincarnation of a band who’ve gone through alt-country, alt-pop, experimental rock, and many subcategories of these ill-defined genres with equal aplomb. The current Wilco era can be traced back to the release of 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, a painfully fractured album that pointed to the instability of the band at that time: half of Wilco’s lineup had recently changed and Tweedy had publicly acknowledged his battle with prescription painkillers.
Tweedy has had some time to heal, and Wilco’s current lineup has had a few years to solidify on tour and in the studio. Everything felt comfortable on Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s last release, which sounded like an homage to laid-back ’60s rock. Here, the band has spread their wings a little bit, bringing back more of the noise they’ve been known for under the keen direction of guitar virtuoso Nels Cline.
It’s hard to overstate Cline’s current role in Wilco. He bursts in and out his solos, ambushing tracks like Wilco (The Song) and Sonny Feeling with all the restraint of a wild boar. He somehow even finds a way to complement the songs’ subject matter without being corny: he wavers like a wounded bird on One Wing; he stabs like bloody murder on Bull Black Nova. It’s a combination of a keen ear for song arrangements, an array of wild guitar effects, and the astonishing collective musical prowess of everyone in Wilco that makes this album the greatest significant evolution of the electric guitar’s sound in rock music since, perhaps, shoegazing started twenty years ago.
It should be noted here that Tweedy is credited, with one exception, as the sole composer of these songs. (The exception, Deeper Down, is a playful number that has full stops in between verses, rolling along like a wind-up toy in the style of The Beatles’ more experimental transitional moments.) So Cline’s most significant contribution really turns out to be his ability to steer these songs just off the beaten path, but never so far as to totally disrupt Tweedy’s beautifully honed songwriting.
And what about the songwriting here? Well, there’s a little bit of everything from Wilco’s past on this record. The grit of Sonny Feeling and the softly spun croons of You And I (Tweedy’s fabulous duet with Feist) harken back to Wilco’s early alt-country days. You Never Know is a pop gem akin to the tunes on Summerteeth. Bull Black Nova has a nervous tick that would fit in with most everything on A Ghost Is Born. And mid-tempo rockers One Wing and I’ll Fight are only a stone’s throw from the songs on Sky Blue Sky.
Wilco (The Album) has a beautifully warm production sound with parts that are gently layered and blended into each other to the extent that it’s difficult at times to discern guitars from keyboards and synthesizers. An even album pacing and a countless number of intricate sounds make all this almost endlessly listenable. And although this isn’t their finest collection of songs, it’s quickly evident from even a cursory listening that this is certainly Wilco (The Band)’s finest lineup to date. So it’s a real shame that you still can’t hear any of it on the radio.