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Wilco, Reconsidered

July 2, 2009

All Wilco fans will remember 2009 as the year that Wilco (The Album) was released.  Many will simultaneously remember 2009 for another significant event in the timeline of the band, the passing of one Jay Bennett.  The shadow cast by Bennett’s death looms large over the release of Wilco (The Album) and should allow the rock world to come to terms with the difference between the Jeff Tweedy it wants and the Jeff Tweedy it has.

When Sky Blue Sky was released in 2007, Jeff Tweedy was patronized by most rock pundits for putting out a “solid, but not great” album.  The majority of reviewers said something to the effect of “There are some good songs on the album, but really we expect more from Wilco.”  What many of these reviewers meant was “We want another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and we’re not going to settle for anything less.”

Now folks, I’m a Wilco fan from way back.  I don’t say that with a turned up nose or anything, I just want you to understand where I’m coming from.  I lost my way at Summerteeth and basically turned the band off for about four years.  I missed all the hullaballoo that surrounded the release of YHF in 2001, but that’s OK I saw the movie.  So when I returned to the band in 2005, I had some catching up to do.  My initial opinion regarding YHF (as with Summerteeth) was that there were 2 distinct things going on in the album, which at times were not complimentary:  Tweedy’s songs on one side and the production of those songs on the other.  The departure that Wilco took beginning with Summerteeth had little to do with Tweedy’s songs and more to do with the production of those songs.

Enter the influence of Jay Bennett, who joined the band shortly after the release of their 1995 debut A.M. Bennett joined the band with a strong Chicago rock pedigree and instantly brought with him a sonic palette of sounds and studio techniques that were new and unfamiliar to the rest of the band.  You can hear the stretching begin in 1996’s Being There and continue on Summerteeth.  Bennett pushed the band into the direction of taking a Jeff Tweedy song, deconstructing it, and rebuilding it again through the use of innovative studio techniques and unusual instrumentation.  Bennett, who was a talented multi-instrumentalist in his own right, served as more of a sound engineer on Summerteeth, shaping and sculpting the sounds to add layers of arrangement over Tweedy’s relatively simple song structures.

But when you listen to live recordings of Wilco songs from that time, it becomes apparent that the songs on Summerteeth existed separately from the songs as they were played live.  The point here is that these songs were strong without the production methods and they had legs whether or not there were bells on “Can’t Stand It” or the Mellotron was used on practically every song.  Long story short, by Summerteeth it was clear that Jeff Tweedy could write incredible pop songs aside from the fact that Jay Bennet could engineer terrific pop albums.

So we get to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001, where some of Tweedy’s strongest songwriting meshed with with some of Bennett’s best studio craftmanship.  I’m not going to deconstruct the album here other than to say that all the good things you’ve heard about YHF are true.  It’s simply THE popular rock album of the decade, and in terms of the new ground that was broken and it’s impact on popular music, it has not yet been matched –neither by other bands nor by Wilco itself.

Many of you know the story of Bennett’s departure from the band prior to the release of YHF.  The band soldiered on with A Ghost Is Born and did a good job of cointinuing the studio experimentation that Bennett introduced .  This time around, Tweedy was the studio scientist and he did a flaming good job of it.  But it was clear to anyone who had followed Tweedy’s career that he was a singer/songwriter first and that the Pro-Tools method didn’t come naturally.

It should come as no surprise that Sky Blue Sky was a more straightforward record.  In hindsight, it seems as if Tweedy was telegraphing where the band was going in Ghost’s closer “The Late Greats”, which could easily have been a Sky track.  Sky was certainly uneven, mainly due to the band synthesizing new members Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgenson as well as Tweedy’s more democratic approach to recording.  But if you take away the sonic tinkering, the engineering techniques, and the Pro Tools, what you have are some terrific Jeff Tweedy songs.  For my money, “Impossible Germany” is the best single song that Wilco has ever done.  But with all that, Sky was not really an album with an overarching vision.

Now we get to Wilco (The Album).  Guys and gals, don’t be fooled–this album has a vision.  It is not a concept album, but it makes a statement in a way that only Jeff Tweedy could make it.  Wilco (The Album) marks a turning point in Wilco’s history mainly because I believe it is the most collaborative of any previous Wilco album.  Tweedy finally has surrounded himself with a group of musicians that are, in their own way, as talented at what they do as he is.  Although Jeff Tweedy is and always will be the face of the band, on WTA he is not carrying all of the load.

First and foremost, WTA is about the songs.  Although there are familiar threads that run throughout the album, each of these songs can stand on its own and go toe-to-toe with anything else out there in popular music.  “Wilco (The Song)” is billed as a tounge-in-cheek recording that allows the band to poke fun at itself.  I choose to believe it’s a mission statement, a breaking down of the fourth wall to allow us to understand that Wilco is here to love us, the listener, and as long as we stick it out we won’t be disappointed.  This serves as an interesting counterpoint to Tweedy’s declaration on YHF that he was out to break our hearts.  And if you stick to WTA, I promise your heart won’t be broken.

If you look at the entire collection of Wilco songs over the past 15 years, you will see a remarkable consistency in Tweedy’s songwriting and WTA continues that streak.  Songs like “Bull Black Nova” and “Solitaire” prove that Tweedy can still write dark, paranoid material that stands in stark contrast to the jangle-pop of “You Never Know” and “Sonny Feeling”.  Plus, he can do melancholy on “One Wing”, he can contrast sweet music with bittersweet lyrics on “You and I”, he can tell a compelling story on “Deeper Down”, and on and on.  The man has a songwriting range that is unique in this day of one-trick musical ponies.

So the question looms like the ghost of Jay Bennett over WTA:  Is it better than YHF?  And in his own unique way, Jeff Tweedy lets us know that it doesn’t matter.  He has never cared in the slightest in recreating the magic from YHF–that was what we were looking for.  Those of us who lauded Wilco for stepping outside of the box ten years ago are the same people who complain when the band finds another box to step into.  On WTA, Wilco lets us know that they have made the box they find themselves in, not us, and they’ll stay there as long as they want to.  The songs on this album are not really about pleasing us, although they certainly are pleasing to listen to.  In the end, these songs fulfill themselves–they stand as a testament to why we all love a good 3 minute pop song.  I think for Jeff Tweedy, it’s simply enough to write some of the finest songs in rock history and record them with one of the best collections of musicians around.  And in the end if he can be satisfied with that, why can’t we?

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