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|Written by Kris Millett|
|Sunday, 14 June 2009 19:00|
Sometimes I think Wilco has it too easy. Being the darlings of Indiedom for over a decade now, they are not under any pressure to deliver hit singles. Critical acclaim, combined with their loyal fan base, provide necessary shelter for the band to continue undisturbed along its meandering artistic path.
As such, Wilco have delivered no big songs over their career, nothing that has captured the imagination of the world. As a fan, that has made them difficult to introduce to new people. Not that a non-fan has ever told me they thought Wilco were “bad,” but usually they’re left wondering what all the fuss is about. Never has more musical buzz been generated by such an unassuming bunch of guys.
Therefore, one could suggest that critics have overrated Wilco. I like them a lot, and would love to place them in the pantheon of great rock bands that came out of the 1990s – amongst the Radioheads, Pearl Jams, and The Smashing Pumpkins – but I can’t. Those bands, willing or not, were put through the corporate rock wringer to prove themselves, and each delivered timeless material. The best Wilco ever did was get the video to 1997’s “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” into medium rotation on Muchmusic. They are like that slackish, brilliant C student in school that you were sure could get straight As if he/she felt like it.
To their credit, Wilco have taken full advantage of their cocoon from the commercial world. Each album since 1996’s ‘coming of age’ Being There has been a worthwhile listen: never same-sounding, yet their trademark alt-country sound always within earshot as they bound into unexpected musical directions (e.g., 2002’s “Jesus Etc.”).
This artistic path appeared to reach its intended destination with 2007’s Sky Blue Sky – where sonic experimentation took a backseat to song craft, spawning a delicately arranged suite of beautiful songs. It was also the most laid-back, conventional-sounding thing they had done in a while, and critics seemed to be salivating less than usual.
This made me approach listening to brand-new Wilco (The Album) with one central concern: with commercial success an unlikely pipedream, and critical attention shifting to younger alternative acts, what can this approaching-fortysomething band do to stay culturally relevant?
*** 2 listens later – 1 with headphones ***
Perhaps I’ve been taking Wilco a lot more seriously than Wilco has. The first song on Wilco (The Album) is called "Wilco (The Song)." I saw them play it a few months ago on The Colbert Report, thinking that it was maybe a joke. Here it is now opening what I've determined to be their bid to stay relevant.
That being said, “Wilco (the Song)” is a lot better than I remember. Its premise calls upon listeners to use the band as a "a sonic shoulder to cry on" when times are tough. As the chorus says: "Wilco will love you, baby". And as far as I know it's the first advertising jingle that a band has written for themselves. It’s intentionally campy (I think), and a genuinely great song.
The subsequent tracks go to work on that ‘sonic shoulder’. Whereas on Sky Blue Sky each individual instrument could be crisply heard, the instruments here blend together in mind-bending unison, as displayed on "Bull Black Nova" – pianos bursting from both channels seamlessly transform into jagged guitars and back again, rising in intensity, slowly going mad, feeding back and breaking down. It's sonic territory previously visited on 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, but played with a heretofore-unseen intensity.
"You and I" is an acoustic campfire strummer, providing a nice breather after the sonic onslaught and studio wankery of the opening tracks. Wilco even attempt to be contemporary by bringing in Feist to duet (this could be as close as the band ever come to making a hit). The song is capped off with a backwards-played guitar solo, which isn't used enough any more, in my opinion. It fits the song perfectly.
For me, the key to the entire album is “You Never Know”. When it started, I half expected Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to start singing. Instead, Tweedy sounds almost Tom Pettyish, snarling, "Every generation thinks they're the worst." Then the chorus kicks in, Tweedy wails “I don’t care anymore,” and I’m left wondering what it reminds me of, until midway through, when guitarist Nels Cline lets me in on the joke by perfectly copying George Harrison’s harmonic-bend lick from "My Sweet Lord."
This I found intriguing. Wilco’s made songs in the past that mimic classics (for instance, “We’re Just Friends” off 1999’s Summerteeth), only the band was never cheeky enough to point it out directly. But in 1999, Wilco were considered by critics to be
I now realize I was wrong about what I said earlier. Wilco haven’t had it easy. Trying to meet critical expectations can be even more traumatic for a band than commercial expectations; especially if you don’t sell a whole lot of records, and your existence is based upon pleasing influential record reviewers. With each successive release, you must surpass what you’ve done before, or else risk receiving the “Kiss of Death” (a short, generally positive album review, suggesting your music is pleasant, but no longer important).
Wilco (The Album) suggests that Wilco don’t care about being
Wilco (The Album) will be available in stores on June 30. Till then, it’s streaming at www.wilcoworld.net