Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s 2002 and your band records one of the best albums of this decade (which means, at this point in time, you would be in the running for one of the best albums of the century and millennium so far – nice work). Your label rejects it, you tell them to get fucked, they drop you, and a few months later, one of their subsidiaries picks you up and releases your album to widespread critical acclaim. Your album helps me through a romantic rocky patch in my life and, along with the album you made before that and everything Tom Waits has ever done, your new album is part of a little musical cavern into which I would periodically crawl to lick my emotional wounds.
Congratulations, you’re Wilco, and the album in question is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Well done. Now let’s say you’re reading a Bollocks! review in 2009 and I’m talking about the new Wilco album, conveniently named Wilco (The Album). It’s easy to say that because – surprise! – that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
Wilco has entered what I’ll call the Can’t Win phase of their career. Since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s been trapped in a critical Catch-22 by people who thought YHF was an “experimental” masterpiece (masterpiece, yes, but it’s basically a Beatles album). They wanted more of that, please and thank you, but when Jeff Tweedy cranked up the guitars on A Ghost is Born, the critical panties grew a bit bunched. Not guitars, they said. They wanted blips and bleeps. So when Wilco released Sky Blue Sky, admittedly a great grower album (I owned it for a year before I realized, on a lazy drive back from the Bay Area, that it’s a gorgeous album in its own quiet way), the critics brought out the big guns – “dad rock,” they called it. How dare Wilco try to make 70s rock records? Those don’t have our beloved bleeps and blips. So now we have Wilco (The Album) and the critics seem to want to like it, though Pitchfork said it lacked the audacity of their other records (A.M. and Sky Blue Sky don’t strike me as particularly audacious, but maybe that’s because I know what “audacious” means. Of course, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was their most audacious album, but that’s because everyone thought they were a country-rock band and they wanted to be an awesome-rock band. Point goes to Wilco on that one) and the Onion A.V. Club dropped this critical turd nugget on the band, saying they’re capable of So Much More. They didn’t say what, exactly, that meant, which is irritating to me. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that phrase in a Bollocks! review, but if I do in the future, please call me on it. It’s lazy to say something like that without qualifying it. Saying a band is capable of So Much More isn’t saying you don’t like them – I don’t think you need to give a reason for simply not liking something (some people think you do, and I say “Fuck you” is reason enough. Sometimes you just know you don’t like something), but if you say a band is capable of more than what they’ve done on a given record, you’re implying knowledge of something they could’ve done and didn’t do. You fucking know-it-all.
Now, when I listen to an album, my primary concern is: does it consist of good songs? Wilco (The Album) consists not only of some good tunes but a few great ones. It’s a melting pot of everywhere Wilco has musically been in their career; “You Never Know” is worthy of Being There, “Sonny Feeling,” sounds like Summerteeth, “Country Disappeared” and “Deeper Down,” wouldn’t be out of place on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Maybe that’s the problem the critics have with Wilco (The Album), but I look it more like so: Wilco is capable of doing pretty much anything at this point and, with Wilco (The Album), they do a little of everything. And it sounds great. The more I listen to this album, the more I like it.
It opens, naturally, with “Wilco (The Song)” which is a literal love letter to the listener (“a sonic shoulder for your to cry on,” Tweedy sings before adding, in case you were unsure, that “Wilco will love you, baby”) and is one of the catchiest tunes Wilco has done since “The Late Greats.” “Wilco (The Song)” is followed by one of the two most beautiful tracks on the album, “Deeper Down,” (the song features a reference to triremes – you don’t hear a lot of people singing about Greco-Roman warships much these days. And, for all you critics out there, they didn’t fucking do that on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). The other super-beautiful track, perhaps the most beautiful on the album, is “Country Disappeared,” an aching tune that has Tweedy singing, “every evening/ we can watch from above/ crushed cities like a bug”, describing the televised destruction of a once-great nation.
In 2006, I was discussing The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics and I pointed out that the Lips got unfairly shit on for that record because their previous two albums were home runs and suddenly everyone was mad that they hit a triple. Most bands, it should be noted, don’t make it to first base much (for instance, bands like Nickelback dive in front of a pitch to get on base. You get the idea). I feel the same way about Wilco (The Album). Wilco has hit a couple of big home-runs in their career (their names are Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), and they usually manage at least a ground-rule double (I’ll quit with the baseball metaphors in a minute – I am talking about baseball, right?). Oh, and let’s not forget their 10th inning, 2 guys out, buzzer-beating grand slam collaboration with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue.
Sure, Wilco (The Album) isn’t perfect, but perfect albums are hard to come by. Sgt. Pepper’s is perfect, London Calling is perfect, Ziggy Stardust is perfect – you see how stiff the competition is there. But who cares? I don’t only listen to perfect albums. YHF might be perfect (hell, I’m not finding much wrong on Summerteeth either) or it might not, but with Wilco (The Album), Jeff Tweedy and company have most certainly punted a double-bogie hat trick right over the net and out of the fucking park.