When erstwhile Uncle Tupelo frontman Jeff Tweedy fashioned Wilco out of the remnants of his former band it's unclear precisely what his ambitions were; A.M. lacked the artistic pretensions that characterized subsequent efforts like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and thus amounted to little more than classy, intelligent roots rock in precisely the same vein as Tweedy's ex-group.
Ergo, since Wilco's debut is hardly a radical departure for Tweedy, it makes one wonder in what respects A.M. was meant to differentiate itself from Uncle Tupelo's output. There's none of the studio trickery, unorthodox instrumentation or ambitious lyrics that would come to define the band, leaving a product that's highly reminiscent of Tweedy's past triumphs.
This lack of creative individuality is hardly a catastrophe, however; I'm not terribly familiar with Uncle Tupelo, but I understand them to be an impressive roots rock outfit, and that's exactly what Wilco are on their debut.
While Tweedy was a skilled songwriter from the very inception of Wilco, not all of his tracks boast memorable melodies or clever hooks, yet this rarely poses a problem; A.M. is simply a very warm, inviting listen, eloquently capturing the essence of roots rock while bereft of any pretensions to hipness or edginess. This is a rare, truly refreshing change of pace from most of their more fashion-conscious contemporaries, enabling Wilco to stand out despite being little more than a simple, talented roots rock band with only a modicum of experimentation and innovation to speak of.
More often than not, however, the tracks on A.M. do contain great melodies and a plethora of hooks. Casino Queen is a stellar dirty rocker, Blue Eyed Soul is very moving, Box Full Of Letters is catchy and well constructed and Passenger Side emerges as another well written highlight.
The opener, I Must Be High, is a particularly interesting case. Despite sporting childish rhymes like 'I must be high/to say goodbye/bye bye bye bye,' which constitute some of the most simplistic, gauche hooks imaginable, the song still works if only for Tweedy's signature earnest delivery that manages to transfigure the basic and primitive into compelling, organic songwriting.
Tweedy's straightforward, unpretentious approach imbues the entire album with a certain homey charm that extends to nearly every track, rockers and ballads alike. His lyrics tend to be simple and generic but Tweedy even invests a certain rudimentary poetry into them, though that's likely more a product of the way they're sung than the way they're written. I'd certainly take his basic, everyman lyrical modality over the pretentious, bombastic verse of self-important would-be intellectuals any day; his lyrics are never anti-intellectual, merely a case of understanding his own limitations in the poetry department. This ensures that his lyrics are never at all offensive, and while they're not much of an asset they're hardly the focus of Wilco's songs.
Admittedly there's not that much variety from a musical perspective. The songs on A.M. are nearly uniformly roots rock (often with country overtones); while the band explores the full range of roots rock possibilities, much the same way that the Stones did on Exile On Main St., their encyclopedic exploration of the genre is hardly as expansive as Jagger and company's efforts in this department, leading to a comparative dearth of diversity on the album.
All the same, Wilco investigate enough different permutations of the genre on A.M. to always keep the music fresh, even if it's not the most diverse album in the world. The performances are superb throughout, fleshing out disparate varieties of roots rock variations, while Tweedy, ever the adept songwriter, is easily capable of penning myriad tracks that, while fundamentally similar to one another from a stylistic perspective, still ably distinguish themselves from one another through the creative melodies and hooks that he crafts for them.
Thus A.M. is quite an auspicious debut for Wilco; while it lacks the experimental tendencies that would ultimately earn the band the nearly universal acclaim that they currently enjoy, garnering them the attention of casual listeners and avant garde favoring elitists alike, the album is still a simple, well made and enjoyable listen, which is all that one can really ask for at this stage of their careers. Tweedy hadn't yet defined himself as an artist outside of the shadow of Uncle Tupelo, and thus Wilco's early work is largely devoted to him attempting to find his unique niche in the realm of rock and roll; while he may not have found it this early on, his search manages to be highly compelling and entertaining in its own right.
A.M. had been a humble, unpretentious product, and this accounted for much of its understated charm; it did not, however, represent the full extent of Jeff Tweedy's ambitions, and thus it was apparent that his subsequent efforts would be far more daring on an artistic level.
While on Being There Wilco had yet to indulge their experimental side to the degree that they would on later works, the CD is still a bold step forward for the band, rendering it something akin to a transitional album.
There's often a stigma against transitional albums, decrying them as muddled fare that lack a cohesive identity, but one could also point to a certain innate charm that such works possess, as they offer a fascinating depiction of the growth of a band, illustrating the subtle changes that Wilco undergo during their creative metamorphosis. On a transitional album a group is still unsure of the new directions they're embracing, and this imbues them with a certain likeable insecurity, as well as providing a compelling fusion of a group's past, present and future.
One of the main disparities between A.M. and Being There can be ascertained simply by looking at the package itself; Wilco's sophomore effort is a double album, containing nineteen tracks worth of new material. While only a quantitative difference on the surface level, this shift in length offers greater implications about the course the band is taking. It takes far more confidence in one's abilities to dare to release a double album so early in one's career; the group may be insecure when it comes to the new musical styles they're adopting, but this trepidation obviously doesn't extend to Tweedy's faith in his overall songwriting prowess.
There are more signs of growth than the literal application to length, however; as is necessary for any good double album, Being There is a diverse work, far moreso than their previous effort. Furthermore, this newfound variety tends to manifest itself in the form of tributes to the band's primary influences, a diverse selection of rock pioneers with styles ranging from the psychedelia of the Beatles to the power pop of Big Star.
One might assume that by transparently adopting the styles of their indirect mentors that these homages would obstruct Wilco's primary strengths, namely Tweedy's earnest, profoundly resonant approach. Fortunately this is not the case; during even the most faithful of their stylistic masquerades the group retain their own unique identity and voice, thus enabling Tweedy to sound just as affably straightforward and emotionally rich as ever.
The most important element is, of course, the songwriting, and this is the area in which Tweedy most distinguishes himself. Out of nineteen tracks there isn't a single weak link, as each number has at least something worthwhile to offer the listener, be it an inventive vocal hook or a memorable chord sequence. The band deftly handle every new style they tackle, apt pupils for their legendary influences.
One slight problem is that, given the overarching consistency of the album, few individual tracks truly stand out. There are no instant classics on Being There, simply a parade of solid tunes that, while beyond reproach, aren't always that exciting.
Thus sometimes it's not even the best tracks that will be recalled, but rather some of the more unique passages; the opener Misunderstood, for example, is quite strong, but in the long run most will remember it for one's of Wilco's rare (for their early work) sonically abrasive, dissonant moments.
There are certainly a few good tracks that take at least mild precedence over the others, like the bluesy rocker Monday, the catchy Forget The Flowers, the quite impressive Red-Eyed And Blue, the compelling Hotel Arizona and the infectious Kingpin, but much as I like them they tend to get lost in the shuffle of the album, making them difficult to retain (as far as memorability goes some of the songs cheat, like Outtasite (Outta Mind) and Outta Mind (Outta Sight), two versions of the same song that are thus twice as likely to be remembered; at least their arrangements are different enough, but they don't quite pull off the magic of Neil Young's My My Hey Hey and Hey Hey My My).
Thus, as impressive and entertaining as Being There is, its lack of standout classics impedes it on its road to greatness. It's still an excellent album, but not quite the immortal classic it aspires to be. Nevertheless the creation of a double album that's wholly devoid of filler is a stunning accomplishment under any circumstances, and the band are to be commended for their achievement, especially so early in their lifespan as a group.
After experimenting with a veritable cornucopia of styles on the two disc behemoth Being There, it's not that surprising that, with that chameleon like role play behind them, Wilco didn't elect to revert to their trademark roots rock style; rather, they accentuated their already developing pop acumen, elevating it to the forefront of all of their work on Being There's follow up, the experimental pop album Summerteeth, constituting the band's next step in their gradual metamorphosis from Uncle Tupelo style roots rock to a more indie flavored conception of pop music.
While this is a natural progression for a group like Wilco, in practice it didn't quite pan out the way Tweedy and company would have wished it to. Despite being a pop album, Summerteeth suffers from a conspicuous lack of hooks, especially when compared to their prior releases. This is truly mystifying, ultimately revealing that the group was more adept at roots rock songs with pop overtones than genuine pop itself. Being There featured pop hooks aplenty, and even A.M., an album firmly entrenched in the realm of conventional, straightforward roots rocks, surpasses Summterteeth in the hook department.
This is a truly baffling phenomenon, but it doesn't mean that the album's bad; far from it, in fact. It simply isn't the seminal indie classic the group was hoping for, but the band can be forgiven for their unfulfilled pretensions on this particular occasion, all the moreso because of the merits that Summerteeth does possess.
One of the major flaws that afflicts the album is an oft occurring, pronounced emphasis on form over style. Songs like She's A Jar are brilliantly arranged and immaculately performed, but that doesn't conceal its utter lack of compelling hooks. The song is still quite strong, if only for the aforementioned quality of its arrangement, but without a solid melody it can never be considered a true classic or standout track in the band's catalogue.
The band's pretensions don't only extend to their alchemic pursuits within the pop genre; they also manifest themselves in the form of more explicit, transparent experimentation, hence tracks like Via Chicago with its avant garde flourishes that, while inoffensive, don't really add any new dimensions to the song. While the real sonic wizardry wouldn't arrive until their next album, the roots of this movement are already easily identifiable on Summerteeth.
While there is an alarming paucity of hooks on the album, Summerteeth still has its fair share of minor classics. Can't Stand It is an infectious pop rocker complete with an irresistible riff and a great vocal melody in the verses (though the refrain is oddly lacking), I'm Always In Love is captivating and anthemic in a way that few tracks on the album are, ELT rocks more than the majority of the rest of the material and the title track is catchy and well written.
I certainly wouldn't ascribe the term 'masterpiece' to any of those numbers, but they're still quite entertaining and prove that Tweedy's songwriting faculties had by no means atrophied in the intervening years since Being There. While Wilco's grasp on the pop genre can often be tenuous at best they still deliver some decent pop hooks on occasion, and even the numbers bereft of such catchiness have certainly had a lot of time and energy devoted to their construction, as is made evident by the intricacy of their craftsmanship.
While solid, Summerteeth is still a severe disappointment, if only due to inflated expectations. After the brilliant array of pop hooks contained on their previous output one would assume that a pure pop album from Wilco would be musical ecstasy, the type of pop bliss that is seldom achieved in the current musical climate. Summerteeth, however, fails to deliver in this department, offering a pretty good but flawed listening experience that fails to distinguish itself in the oversaturated world of indie pop.
Nevertheless the album is still quite strong even if it doesn't live up to one's lofty hopes for it. There are certainly instances of high caliber songwriting, and the arrangements tend to be very impressive and well calculated; also, the album's experimental interludes are never really that intrusive or prolonged, taking a backseat to the music itself, precisely as it should.
Thus Summerteeth is another solid outing for Wilco, not quite the stellar follow up to Being There that one would have wished for but decidedly well crafted nonetheless. While most of the album's ambitions are never quite realized the band is at least taking risks in developing their own unique sound, and when a group is desperately trying to find their own voice it's natural that there'd be some misfires along the way. Wilco succeed at producing a work that's unique and genuinely different from what most rock outfits on the indie scene are offering, and for that alone they should certainly be commended; while Wilco pop may not be as melodically accomplished and sophisticated as one would wish, it at least sounds nothing like most pop music that a rock fan is apt to encounter during their musical explorations, making for a more distinctive, and thus rewarding, listening experience.
The circumstances surrounding the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot alone are sufficient to instantly catapult the album to legendary status, a compelling tale of ambitious young musicians battling against boorish record studio philistines and emerging victorious, the little men finally toppling the oppressive, uncultured, ever intolerant system.
Wilco's previous endeavor, Summerteeth, had certainly garnered a considerable amount of critical acclaim, but this did not translate into a strong commercial showing. Ergo when Wilco brought the record company Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their least accessible album to date, the inherently conservative execs were understandably less than thrilled with the prospect of what appeared to be another commercial fiasco.
Thus the suits delivered an ultimatum to the band, demanding a more casual-listener friendly cut of the album or else Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would never see the light of day. Jeff Tweedy was unwilling to compromise his artistic vision, and accordingly bought back the tapes from the company for $50,000, a hefty sum for a band as obscure and unprofitable as Wilco.
This left Wilco without a label, holding an inert album with no means to convey it to an audience. Fortunately Tweedy found an answer to his dilemma in the form of the internet, a medium continually growing more and more integral to the music community with each passing year. With the band leaking the as yet unissued album via their site, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot slowly but surely developed a devoted cult following, ultimately becoming an underground sensation, while the group complemented the online success of their latest opus with a rigorous touring schedule that, predictably enough, featured most of the album on their setlist.
Thus Wilco had managed to promote their unreleased CD without becoming affiliated with a single record company, simply through their own concerted effort. Inevitably the underground popularity of the album attracted the attention of various record labels, as Wilco went from being a liability to a major record company to a cult favorite who were being courted by a plethora of industry bigwigs.
Finally, after a year of being suspended in the nebulous limbo of partial release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was unleashed upon a mainstream audience, enjoying success from not only the fanbase that Wilco had cultivated through their online gambit but also a wider audience who were intrigued by the album's history and by the effusive praise the CD elicited from the vast majority of music critics.
Thus thanks to this story, a tale considered compelling enough to motivate a filmmaker to release a documentary on the subject, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a hot topic before it even came close to hitting the shelves. It also exhibited the degree to which the internet can affect a rock outfit's career, a lesson well learned by the likes of The Arctic Monkeys who managed to become an overnight sensation solely based on the popularity of their leaked debut.
Thus the inevitable question arises: is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a truly deserving effort or is it an anomaly fueled by its larger than life history? Fortunately, the album is highly deserving indeed, and a contemporary masterpiece in its own right.
The focal point of the controversy that surrounds the album are its experimental arrangements, the very same ones that raised the collective ire of the record studio executives and impelled them to summarily reject Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a viable commercial product.
Avant garde arrangements of this nature had been prevalent on Summerteeth, but on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot they'd become ubiquitous. This has incensed many a listener who proclaim that these experimental elements obstruct, dilute or corrupt the melodies, but in this regard I would beg to differ; while they may not always complement the music, the arrangements never have a deleterious effect on the melodies, and moreover are consistently adroitly implemented, evoking a certain bleak, tenebrous atmosphere that's pivotal to the essence of the album.
The arrangements are nearly always clever and never (or at least seldom) fall into the usual pitfalls of dissonance or ear destructive feedback. Rather they're intelligently integrated into the music; some may decry them as a symptom of pretentious self-indulgence, or denounce them as noise for the sake of noise, but they're administered with far too much precision and calculation for the latter accusation to be true. The former charge is, obviously, highly subjective, but in my estimation the arrangements are far too important to the purpose, flow and character of the album to dismiss them as pseudo-intellectual posturing.
More important than the arrangements applied to them, however, is the caliber of the songwriting itself, and this is where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot truly shines. The band has come a long way, both musically and lyrically, from the days back on A.M. where they came across as a promising alternative country/roots rock outfit. By now Tweedy has fully eschewed the trappings of his erstwhile band, Uncle Tupelo, and devoted himself to composing highly ambitious, artistically daring rock songs with only a passing resemblance to his works of old.
The songs are uniformly excellent, with each track betraying the tremendous effort and craftsmanship that went into shaping them. Unlike on Summerteeth the art of the hook is not neglected, leading to a parade of songs that are striking in terms of both catchy songwriting and adventurous arrangements.
The album cultivates a mood of desperation and melancholia that's eloquently conveyed through the innovative arrangements as well as the tone of the songs themselves, both musically and lyrically. There are tracks that offer some respite from the somber onslaught, like the lightweight yet immensely entertaining Heavy Metal Drummer, but for the most part the album sustains this morose atmosphere throughout its entirety.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot opens on a high note with the classic I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a seven minute epic that's simply arresting for its full duration; the song is highly catchy but its melodic nature never dispels the track's innate darkness and morbidity.
Much the same as Being There, however, the consistency of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot makes it difficult to isolate highlights, though for vastly different reasons; whereas on their dual disc sophomore effort the tracks were all good yet never transcendent, on this outing nearly any song can be labeled a highlight, and even counted amongst the band's best efforts. Tweedy has simply attained a new level of songwriting brilliance, high praise given that he'd never quite been a slouch in this department to begin with.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is simply a modern masterpiece, a moody, moving and entertaining epic that eclipses everything else the band had done to this point. A.M. betrayed a lot of latent talent that was largely realized on the excellent Being There, while Summerteeth showcased a maturation in the band's arrangements. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, however, excels in every department, marrying Tweedy's songwriting genius to the ambitious arrangements demonstrated on Summerteeth. The resulting product is the natural culmination of all of Wilco's strengths, and an album that manages to be inherently experimental yet fundamentally accessible at the same time. While many listeners may, at first, be intimidated by the very arrangements that scared off Wilco's record label, upon penetrating deeper into the heart of the music they'll find a collection of axiomatically entertaining melodies, while upon investigating even deeper they'll find the subtle yet powerful link between the two.
After the monumental critical success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco were left with the unenviable task of producing a follow up that would likely be subjected to extremely intense, critical scrutiny; while the band didn't orchestrate any online leakages or promotional touring to hype A Ghost Is Born, these measures would likely have been superfluous anyway, as the widespread reverence of the album's predecessor was sufficient in and of itself to automatically generate a huge amount of buzz for their next endeavor.
Thus A Ghost Is Born is destined to always be compared to Wilco's seminal masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and when viewed from this perspective it can't help but seem somewhat insubstantial. The caliber of the songwriting simply doesn't measure up to their epochal classic, a situation that's exacerbated by the self-indulgence that bred overly protracted epics like Spiders (Kidsmoke) that do little to justify their bloated runtimes.
The worst culprit, however, is the weakest song on the album (my usage of the word 'song' is charitable at best) and the absolute nadir of the band's catalogue, the aural abomination that is Less Than You Think. While Spiders can grow somewhat drab, it's nothing compared to this sonic ordeal; Spiders at least featured some decent instrumental passages (albeit passages that were repeated far beyond reasonable bounds), but the material on Less Than You Think scarcely qualifies as music at all, more akin to an ambient soundscape that favors constant abrasiveness and dissonance over beauty or tranquility.
The song was recorded for the express purpose of communicating the feel of Tweedy's well documented chronic migraines, and I see little merit in inflicting one's own physical pain upon a listener. It's perfectly possible to relate to and empathize with Tweedy without being forced to endure his torturous affliction; in fact, one of Wilco's chief assets has always been the resonance of Tweedy's musical persona, and this emotional connection was never effected by consigning the listener to aural agony.
Thankfully this song is an exception to the rule, as the remainder of the album is perfectly listenable and often entertaining. While the quality of the songwriting is sorely lacking this time around, there certainly are some highlights; thus Hummingbird is quite charming and pretty, Handshake Drugs is rather effective, Theologians is catchy and the closer, The Late Greats, is harmless fun that earns points for its scathing indictment of the vacuity of contemporary radio.
While these tracks are decent, there are no full fledged classics on the album. Rather much of A Ghost Is Born's appeal stems from its moodiness, an atmosphere that's achieved through its sparse, minimalistic style. The tracks tend to be very bare bones from a structural perspective, with subtle arrangements that fully preserve the album's haunting minimalism.
While this approach may not be conducive toward fashioning an album in the band's usual vein, it makes for a refreshingly distinctive experience; whereas most bands would simply have made a rehash of the uber successful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco refused to succumb to this conservative paradigm, rather crafting a work that does much to differentiate itself from the remainder of the group's discography.
While certainly ambitious, the album abstains from employing much of the sonic wizardry that characterized Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; rather, they compartmentalize these avant garde tendencies, confining them to the aforementioned chthonic experience that is Less Than You Think. While that track illustrates the hazards inherent to such sonic gambits, these techniques could still have been well implemented providing Wilco never utilized them in such an excessive fashion; still, their absence is most certainly for the best, enabling A Ghost Is Born to forge its own identity.
Thus while A Ghost Is Born is a severe disappointment after the brilliance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, suffering from a pronounced paucity of catchy hooks and memorable melodies, it still manages to be a solid outing in its own right thanks to its novel approach in tackling Wilco's standard fare.
Melodies obviously take precedence over atmosphere when assessing Wilco, and thus the album can't help but be the group's weakest effort to date, but given the caliber of the band's body of work that isn't as considerable slight as one would imagine; it's simply that all of the previous Wilco albums contained superior songwriting, with a healthier supply of inventive hooks and compelling tunes. A Ghost Is Born is still a good album, but all of its intriguing minimalistic attributes are somewhat sabotaged by the CD's dearth of musical substance.
Ever since their humble origins on A.M. Wilco had been engaged in various forms of experimentation and avant garde flirtation, from the genre bending exercises on Being There to the unorthodox, innovative pop of Summerteeth to the sonic wizardry of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to the minimalistic arrangements of A Ghost Is Born.
Wilco had adroitly handled each of these disparate musical modalities, but by the time of A Ghost Is Born it was clear that the band had grown short on inspiration, with the caliber of their songwriting deteriorating to alarming levels. They had never even come close to producing a truly bad album, but Wilco had set fan's expectations at a very high level and thus had nearly insurmountable standards to live up to, ergo these creative doldrums amounted to a near catastrophe for a group endeavoring to provide the best product imaginable for their fickle audience.
It's unclear if the qualitative decline of the band's music was in any way linked to their hyper ambitious, ever experimental nature, but regardless of any potential correlations between the two Wilco's ultimate decision seems like the best remedy for their dilemma. Jeff Tweedy and company returned to their alternative country/roots rock origins, in the process reenergizing their creative faculties and reinvigorating their artistic passion.
This maneuver may not have been an intuitive course of action, and a return to one's roots is just as apt to cause a regression as refuel one's creative prowess, but fortunately the band's gambit worked, and thus their return to the past also constituted a return to form.
Wilco were obviously incapable, at this point in their careers, of producing a pure alternative country album, and thus some genre bending elements that the band had collected along the way do indeed manifest themselves on occasion, but these relapses into experimental territory are hardly as prevalent as one would have surmised, rendering Sky Blue Sky an authentic, genuine throwback to the band's roots.
Thus the album that Sky Blue Sky shares the closest resemblance to is A.M., the band's very first effort, and these similarities make the CD an apt showcase for the band's progression over the years, changes made especially transparent due to the fact that both products inhabit precisely the same genre and style. Whereas comparing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Sky Blue Sky would simply breed confusion and haphazard extrapolations given the stylistic incompatibility of the two albums, A.M. is an apt foil for Wilco's newest venture, illustrating the evolution of the band's songwriting over the years.
As far as the group's development is concerned, the contrast between the two albums is quite revelatory; while both records are firmly entrenched in the realm of alternative country and roots rock, it's clear that Sky Blue Sky contains more sophisticated, complex arrangements than the more simple and straightforward A.M., not to mention the more cerebral lyrics that the later album features. Both albums are exceedingly accomplished in the melody department, but the more challenging Sky Blue Sky fare makes it more rewarding in the long run.
This isn't to denigrate A.M.; on the contrary, the album is sufficiently close to Sky Blue Sky on a qualitative level that they both receive the same rating. But the band has grown, and this is evident even when Wilco aren't crafting ultra ambitious, deeply experimental artistic visions.
Sky Blue Sky is highly consistent, bereft of any true misfires; while invariably some tracks are stronger than others even the lesser numbers have something to offer, with no self-indulgent headache-inducing cacophonous ordeals like Less Than You Think.
In fact, the album is extremely restrained when it comes to the band's usual self-indulgent streak; no tracks reach the six minute mark, a far cry from the trademark epics that typify Wilco's other releases.
As is usually the case with Wilco's more consistent achievements it's difficult to identify highlights, but nonetheless some tracks stand out like the album's longest number, the stellar Impossible Germany. The first four tracks all constitute highlights, and while some of the later songs may not live up to this auspicious opening there are some gems toward the end like Shake It Off with its rock and roll interludes and Hate It Here which contains an instrumental flourish plagiarized from The Beatles yet has enough original content to forgive this musical theft.
One reason why Shake It Off truly stands out is because there are precious few instances of conventional rocking to be found on the album. The overall tone is pervasively mellow, with little to disrupt this soft, soothing sound. Despite the ubiquity of mellowness, however, the album never grows monotonous, with no danger of the listener being lulled to sleep by the gentle vibe that Wilco deftly cultivate throughout nearly the entirety of the CD.
Ultimately Sky Blue Sky is a very impressive outing for the band, proving that no matter how far removed their more ambitious material grows from their early fare they've still retained their aptitude for their erstwhile style of choice, effortlessly returning to their old alternative country glory. The caliber of Tweedy's roots rock songwriting hasn't diminished over the years, and while the current Wilco lineup had little to do with the group's early output they still adroitly handle the genre with an expertise that bespeaks their versatility as musicians.
Thus Sky Blue Sky is a great alternative country album from a band that one would have assumed would never create another alternative country album; it may not be what fans want from Wilco at this point, but it's difficult to object to an album of the caliber of Sky Blue Sky no matter what style it's in. Hopefully this experience has returned the band to top form, translating into similar success on a more ambitious plane, but for now one must be content with listening to this well crafted, welcoming and enjoyable album.
Wilco's decidedly unspectacular post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot output conspired to create the impression that the band had peaked with that experimental masterpiece, reducing their subsequent work to something akin to a middling, extraneous coda.
Albums like A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky are by no means bad; on the contrary, they're solid fare that most any band would be proud to count amongst their canon. When compared to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, however, they can't help but be overshadowed by that seminal behemoth, a profoundly unflattering contrast from any perspective.
Wilco's faithful fanbase, however, were less inclined to share this cynical outlook, insisting that the band would scale new artistic heights on their future endeavors. The decent but certainly flawed A Ghost Is Born didn't exactly lend credence to their argument, but Sky Blue Sky added another dimension to the equation.
While not a masterwork in and of itself, Sky Blue Sky was a throwback to the band's early alternative-country period, suggesting that Wilco just needed some time to unwind before renewing their avant garde onslaught on the rock and roll music community. Doubtlessly their next opus would instantly elevate them to the heights of the indie rock scene; clearly all they needed was a brief respite to reinvigorate Tweedy's considerable songwriting acumen.
Unfortunately, from the very first notes on Wilco (The Album), it's instantly apparent that this hypothesis is sorely lacking in precision or accuracy. The album's opener, Wilco (The Song), dispels all hopes for a return to form, providing an entertaining but shallow experience that's conspicuously bereft of the band's usual artistry or ambition.
Wilco (The Song) is unlike any composition that Tweedy had penned before, an aggressively lightweight and self-referential throwaway that truly has no analogs in Wilco's backlog. It's hard to imagine that the group that crafted the overwhelmingly serious, emotionally transparent, experimental classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could produce a number as jovial, slight, flippant and insincere as Wilco (The Song), replacing somber earnestness and artistic ambition with hip posturing and lighthearted, borderline-silly noisemaking.
Admittedly even Yankee Hotel Foxtrot offered reprieves from its tenebrous essence, like the disarmingly whimsical interlude Heavy Metal Drummer, but it's a different matter altogether when a group produces an album that opens with something akin to a declaration of underachievement, a song that's more of a rejection of ambition than a brief diversion from it.
Once one has accepted that Wilco (The Album) is something of a toss-off, a considerably less experimental and serious product than what's come before, then one's free to enjoy what's ultimately a fun, catchy opener. While blatant self-referentialism from Wilco is somewhat disheartening in light of the group's earnest, sincere past and their previous commitment to eschew hipness and trend-hopping in favor of producing true art, the song is still quite entertaining, amusing and memorable, with a sing-along refrain and a refreshing lightheartedness from a customarily dour rock outfit.
Wilco (The Song) sets the stage for what's essentially Wilco-lite, a fun but unambitious work that's filled with slight but fundamentally enjoyable material. In all honesty, I have no real objections to an album of this nature; it may not be able to reach the dizzying heights that the band had attained when they were at their most dedicated and experimental, but there's never any harm in some light entertainment.
Thus the problem is an altogether different issue. When Wilco made Summerteeth, their intent was to create a 'pop' album. The band certainly harbored more artistic aspirations, but they would arrive in the form of what was fundamentally a 'pop' oriented record.
Ergo when one listens to Summerteeth one anticipates an album filled with innovative and infectious pop hooks. The problem is that Summerteeth suffers from a severe paucity of catchy hooks. Moreover, Summerteeth boasts fewer catchy pop hooks than albums like A.M. and Being There which aren't even proper 'pop' albums.
Wilco (The Album) suffers from a similar identity crisis. The album is meant to be frivolous, lighthearted fun but far too many of the tracks simply aren't that entertaining. Tweedy is simply not in top form as a songwriter, and thus the album's 'fun' is curtailed by inadequate melodies and lifeless, inert (and sometimes completely absent) hooks.
This isn't always the case, as the album sports its share of decent material. As alluded to before, the opener, Wilco (The Song), is charming if insubstantial, and while Bull Black Nova is the sole number on the album that flirts with dissonance it never loses track of its melody, and thus its status as a highlight seems to indicate that Wilco are at their best when they're at their most adventurous. I'll Fight, while not the most intellectually rich number, is still oddly satisfying, a description that also proves apt for the enjoyable You Never Know.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of misfires like You And I, a track that suffers from chronic blandness and unapologetic sappiness. Far too many numbers simply lack the necessary hooks to animate them, resulting in tired and derivative tracks that add little to the band's legacy.
The closer, Everlasting Everything, is a mixed case. While the way the title is sung, adroitly accompanied by a musical build to a stunning instrumental crescendo, can be quite stirring and moving, the verse melodies are somewhat anemic and pedestrian, as if the band felt that the refrain alone merited their attention.
Thus it's the album's erratic nature and not its lack of ambition that constitutes Wilco (The Album)'s greatest flaw. When backed by Tweedy's impeccable songwriting Wilco can do no wrong, regardless of which genre they tackle. When Tweedy falters, however, Wilco's content will invariably suffer, and no amount of lightheartedness can compensate for the deficit.
Tweedy, at this stage of his career, is incapable of turning in a 'bad' performance, and thus there's still more than enough strong content to elevate Wilco (The Album) to the level of 'solid.' It's simply a pity that even when all that the band wants to do is have 'fun,' they can't convey this 'fun' to the very audience they meant to entertain.