WILCO (The Story)
Back in 2004 I picked up “A Ghost Is Born”, on a whim after reading a positive review somewhere or other, and because I thought the egg-cover was cool. A couple of songs hit me as pretty terrific right off the bat: Spiders (Kidsmoke), a Krautrock aping 10 (nearly 11!) minute groove, Handshake Drugs and Theologians and Hummingbird, all three songs with some great pop hooks, and sounding like something George Harrison (or maybe McCartney) would have put out in the early 70’s. It took me a while to get into the more challenging material, but I eventually did (all save the regrettable 15 minute dirge Less Than You Think), which led me to purchase the remainder of Wilco’s catalogue, in reverse chronological order. It seemed safer than starting at the beginning, and I was glad I did it this way. Had I jumped straight to AM I would have probably bailed. That album remains a competent, but not very satisfying/challenging, chunk of their discography.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, even though the story of its troubled inception has been talked about to death, remains a beautiful album full of great pop songs, some smothered in weird sounds, others fairly straightforward. In hindsight, it’s a very good Wilco album, but not their best. The legend behind this album has blown its importance a little out of proportion.
Summerteeth, from 1999, remains my favorite Wilco album, and Tweedy during this period has been described as a “landlocked Brian Wilson”, which seems a good enough description to me. Although the music is upbeat, the lyrics are decidedly bitter, even violent in some cases and strange. Very, very strange. Here’s an excerpt from Via Chicago:
I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me
Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed
Buried you alive in a fireworks display
Raining down on me
Your cold, hot blood ran away from me
To the sea
I painted my name on the back of a leaf
And I watched it float away
The hope I had in a notebook full of white, dry pages
Was all I tried to save
But the wind blew me back via Chicago
In the middle of the night
And all without fight
At the crush of veils and starlight
It’s funny, but the overall musical mood of the album is upbeat nostalgia, and kindof reminds me a bit of Neil Young’s first few albums. Mixed with post Pet Sounds Brian Wilson, of course.
The double album right before Summerteeth, Being There, is a mess but a very good mess, the same way Exile On Main Street, The White Album and London Calling are a mess. It’s full of different genre exercises; some work and some don’t. But rest assured that most do. It’s like Tweedy is trying on different outfits and seeing which one suits him best, at this point: platform boots, leather pants, denim jacket, mirrored sunglasses, ripped jeans, Boston tee-shirt, cowboy hat and spurs? It is Tweedy’s Jesus Of Cool, and if you don’t get that reference then please do yourself a solid and look it up on wikipedia, or allmusic.com. You’ll thank me later.
Then things start to go a little askew, starting with the debut, A.M. It’s an enjoyable little alt-country album with a few decent numbers (I Must Be High, Casino Queen, That’s Not The Issue), but largely this is a forgettable platter of safe country tinged tunes that sounds like a band aspiring to be The Lemonheads. Again, just my opinion.
From 1995 we leapfrog all the way to 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. After A Ghost Is Born I was excited for this release, to say the least. When I got it and played it, I was pretty disappointed. For a minute I thought the record company had mistakenly placed an America album in the Wilco jewel case. I put it aside knowing that sometimes it takes time for an album to reveal its charms.
I didn’t purchase 2009’s Wilco (The Album), but a buddie burned me a copy, and you know what? I didn’t care for that one much either. Bland, AOR. Again, I thought. It was filed next to Sky Blue Sky.
The Whole Love was released in 2011, and that album seemed to have almost every element I love about the music of Wilco within it. Wild experimentation, bouncy McCartenyesque pop, great guitar…the only criticism I had at the time was that it all seemed a little calculated to me. But that’s probably just me. At the very least it got my Wilco juices flowing again.
Then early in 2014 Tweedy releases a very pleasant and heartfelt album with his son. Fine, but nothing very exciting.
In November of 2014 Wilco releases a double disc compilation of their most essential recordings (can’t call it a Greatest Hits when they have never had one, right?), which usually means the band is done, or it is a contractual obligation, or maybe, just maybe, it signals a new beginning. They also released, on the same day I believe, a HUGE 4-disk set of rarities, including soundtrack items, live and alternate versions of album tracks, b-sides and demos. I wrestled with the purchase of this, I really did. Eventually I pulled the trigger, and after living with it for a few weeks I have to say that about 75% of it is really, really fantastic stuff! While each Wilco album seemed to have a distinct personality, signaling a shift in style with each release (and, losing a chunk of fans each time, too, Tweedy admits in the extensive liner notes), this release proves that they were actually pretty consistent in their eclecticism, if that makes any sense at all. These “left of the dial” offerings are superb reminders of what a great band Wilco were, and remain, and I now, after years in the wilderness, am once again looking forward to hearing the next offering from this uniquely American band.