Thursday, July 9, 2009

FTT Off-Topic: WILCO the Album

Fans of the blog's later, unfunny work will recognize the recent fascination with Wilco, the critically acclaimed and burgeoning successful American alt-country band. Having just acquired their most recent album, I thought I'd review it here for the scads of FTT readers who just can't get through the day without more of my opinions. (Y'all are the best dozens of spam merchant Twitter followers a man could ever hope for. Tell your friends!)

It's the ninth album for the band, with a decade-plus history, myriad band turnover and rancor, and the requisite demons needed for Interesting Work. Frontman Jeff Tweedy acknowledges the baggage right out front with the quasi-single "Wilco", in which he breaks fourth wall to ask the listener leading questions about their outlook. In the chorus, he breaks the pattern with "Wil / co / Wil / co / Wil / co / Will love you, baby."



It's a clever enough lyric and rhythmic structure, but it's given additional weight by the fact that it echoes one of the band's more powerful moments of alienation, in the song "Misunderstood," from "Being There", one of their earlier records. In that song, the word "Noth / ing" is repeated with heartbreaking force, as Tweedy is basically using his voice as a fist against a wall in frustration. When you are far enough into your career to be providing meta-commentary on it, whether ironic or not, and know that some portion of your audience will get it... that's a pretty great place, actually.

Other highlights include "You and I", a pretty duet with Canadian indie darling Feist. The melody is winning and sweet, but as per Tweedy's lifelong pattern of giving you something that will endure with multiple listens, the lyrics undercut the production by pointing out that the couple in question doesn't really know anything about each other, and shouldn't. For everyone who once had a great relationship fall apart with familiarity (show of hands?), it's a dry, dark chuckle of recognition.



"You Never Know" is a rollicking piano driven piece with Beach Boys-esque harmonies that assails the audience for having the hubris to think that they have all of the answers, especially for thinking that the world's going to end on their watch. "Every generation thinks it's the end of the world." For Wilco, this counts as the feel-good song of the year, really.

"I'll Fight" mixes acoustic guitar with old-time organ to give voice to an intriguing lyric of melodramatic fatalism, all undercut with pedal-steel sweetness; it's a freaking college course in contradiction, and reminds you that, well, you could be only listening to one band in the world for stuff like this. There are other good songs which will probably become my favorites over time, but these are the ones that work best for the first few listens.

Disappointments? Well, it's not the longest thing you've ever heard: just 11 songs, around 40 minutes. I could have taken more, more, more, especially as the band currently employs Nels Cline, one of the best guitarists working today. There's nothing truly experimental here, along the lines of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" or "A Ghost Is Born", probably because Tweedy is closer to happiness than he's ever been, according to various interview sources. (He is, I am sure you would be shocked to know, a recovering addict, with painkillers being the choice.) Some of the pieces seem a little by the numbers, which is what's going to happen when a band is on their ninth album with the wolf very far away from the door.

But all in all, it's an 8 or so by their scale, and miles above what you'll get from the rest of the world. Nothing sounds bad on first listen, everything grows with repeat attention, and in an iPod shuffle attention deficit world, they make full albums that won't make you feel bad about spending times with the lesser work. There's something to be said for that level of craft and thought, and it's this: thank you. And play on.

1 comment:

CMJDad said...

Sounds like what you would hear in an elevator.

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