Eight albums in sixteen years – that’s the rate at which Wilco has been releasing records since 1995. Like clockwork, you can virtually anticipate a new Wilco record every two years. The consistency in that is impressive, made that much more so when you consider only a pair of those are regarded as lackluster in quality (see “A.M.” and “Sky Blue Sky” for more information). One of the big things that has kept Wilco vital all these years is their dynamic sense of adventure. Evolving out of Uncle Tupelo, the first couple Wilco albums were very much in a similar alt-country vein, something that didn’t do Jeff Tweedy & Co. many favors when comparisons were tossed about. The strongly pop-driven “Summerteeth” was the first sign the band was emerging from that looming shadow, and their true masterpiece “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” confirmed it fully. Wilco has since evolved into one of the biggest bands in the world, to the point where they can create their own music festival and for the first time, their own record label. Yes, after finishing their contract with Nonesuch Records, Wilco is now officially “going it alone”, stretching their one wing and attempting to fly. Their label is called dBpm, and the first Wilco record released on it is the current one, “The Whole Love”. It’s also the third record in a row with the same band members, which is a good thing considering it’s also their strongest and most consistent lineup out of the many they’ve had.
The thing about consistency is that it breeds familiarity and creates patterns as a result. In spite of their brilliance, the last two Wilco albums have played things a bit safe. “Sky Blue Sky” was like a time warp back to Wilco’s earliest days, a subdued alt-country record that was almost the exact opposite of the immensely experimental “A Ghost Is Born” that came before it. Far better was 2009’s “Wilco (The Album)”, which was closer to a greatest hits record than anything else, with a collection of new songs that each sounded like they belonged on a different, older Wilco release. On “The Whole Love”, the band pretty much picks up exactly where they left off, though with a notable uptick in their more experimental side. That’s evident right from the start of the album, with the 7+ minute “Art of Almost”. Not only is it a surefire replacement for the band’s standard epic opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, it might just be the best Wilco song since then as well. For those worried or disappointed that the band was simply cruising and might not be pushing themselves anymore, here’s a song that would seemingly suggest otherwise. The thing about it is, that off-kilter edge doesn’t last.
First single “I Might” shows up and puts the epic oddities on hold as it bounces around with some fuzzy, lighthearted pop energy. It is in many ways the antithesis of “Art of Almost”, but still fits well within the boundaries of the best of Wilco’s catalogue. It’s the sort of song that the band can do in their sleep, and there seems to be at least one of them on each of their records. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it overly familiar. There are a few tracks on “The Whole Love” that once again work from that same template. See “Dawned On Me” and the title track for a pair of strong examples. If you’re looking for some of those classic Tweedy ballads, this album has you covered on that as well. “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are two somber acoustic numbers that are sobering but inspired and beautiful. Meanwhile “Standing O” features the band at their most brash and rocking, heavy on the upbeat electric guitars and with some strong assistance from buzzy keyboards and handclaps. Nels Cline does some positively raw work on that along with “Born Alone”, among others. He’s by no means underutilized on this record, he just takes the back seat a little more often to let the spotlight shine elsewhere as needed. After all, the way that drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt work with one another as a rhythm section is more than dynamic in its own right.
If you’re looking for something a little more unique from Wilco, “Capitol City” has a quirky 1920s vibe to it, like it deserves to be played at a county fair with a gentleman selling nerve tonic nearby and posters of pinup models everywhere. It’s the bouncy bass line, mellow organ and brushed snare drums that truly sell the track. But like “The Whole Love”‘s auspicious and adventurous beginnings, the record is bookended with the 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. With such an extensive length, the song has been given more than its fair share of breathing room and ample reserve to go off on whatever wild experiment the guys might have up their sleeves. What’s surprising is that it doesn’t do that. It remains firmly grounded and consistent – the pace never moves above a light toe-tap, and it’s the ideal sort of soundtrack for a road trip through open pastures. The acoustic guitar and xylophone, when paired with Tweedy’s sublimely relaxed vocal performance lends the song an intimacy and beauty that wraps you up like a warm hug from a close friend. It doesn’t need to take any tangents or try anything fancy to succeed, and in spite of the melody not changing much, there’s not a single dull moment over the course of those 12 minutes. That in itself is a big key to the song’s brilliance – that Wilco is ambitious enough to extend a single track to an absurd length yet remain content with a largely basic melody. Even the best jam bands never seem to achieve that same remarkable grace.
As with every Wilco record, one of the highlights are Tweedy’s lyrics. He’s a poet in his own right, even if we “don’t give a fuck”. There are always some puzzlers in terms of what he writes, yet the wordplay is never anything less than compelling. How one “assassin’s down the avenue” is irrelevant, save that it sounds cool. Tweedy has said himself that a number of his lyrics are developed straight from his own mublings, in which he’ll simply get the sounds out of his mouth and come up with actual words for those sounds later. So when he references “Slim Jim blood” and the Magna Carta in one single breath on “I Might”, we don’t have to worry what he means by that because it legitimately means nothing. But not every song is comprised of silly gibberish that has no context. “Dawned On Me” is about realizing you’re still in love with somebody you’ve already broken up with, “Open Mind” is about trying to convince your partner to broaden his or her horizons, and “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is close to what the title describes – a confession to the titular author’s boyfriend about having an illicit affair with her. Does a song with a storyline or sensible lyrics make it better than one of the random word collections? In the end, not really – even the songs with no meaning keep it interesting in creating word combinations you’d never think to put together. So long as Tweedy isn’t diving head first into cliches, Wilco’s lyrics will always retain some semblance of brilliance.
Where “The Whole Love” puts Wilco is on the track back to their finest moments. After coasting for the most part on their last two albums, they’re showing a little more willingness to experiment and break from the patterns that have come to define exactly what a “Wilco song” should sound like. To put it a different way, they’re starting to regain the spark that fueled career highlight records like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born” again. While this new album may not go down as Wilco’s best, it can certainly be regarded as falling on the better half of their catalogue. There’s not a single song to dislike on this album, even if it lacks a cohesiveness that the band’s best had. Whether it’s finally reaching a new comfort level or simply being bored with the ground they’ve already traveled, the more these guys can play with our expectations, the better. Feel free to take more chances, fellas. You’ve earned it.