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Wilco (The Review)

July 1, 2009
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This week, Mike reviewed Wilco (The Album), the eponymous seventh album from Chicago alt-rockers, Wilco. Enjoy!

Wilco (The Review)

Wilco (The Cover of the Album)
Wilco (The Cover of the Album)

Wilco’s seventh album has a lot of firsts. It’s their first album to not be recorded entirely in their loft in Chicago (part was done in Auckland, New Zealand), the first to have a duet (with the wonderful Leslie Feist), their first foray in the realm of self-referentiality (previously the realm of Weezer and the Beatles), and their first album to have a camel on the cover.

All their records up to now have had some random image, removed from its original context, on the cover. With this camel, however, which the band is sitting in front of on the back cover (another first – the band appearing on their record!), Wilco are entering a period of self-acknowledgement. After seven records, loads of critical acclaim and a few copies of their records’ sold, the band seem to be contemplating what it means to be Wilco, with the album title, and the excellent first track “Wilco (The Song)”. While I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on the aforementioned White Album comparison, that record was arguably a culmination of a lot of styles the band had been working on, deep into their career, and which many think would have been better if some of the filler had been removed.

I don’t think I’d be in the minority if I suggested that Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), culled together, would be a great album, as opposed to two good albums. I don’t mind the band slowing down and writing songs that work for Volkswagen commercials, as people would argue they were slower and mellower at the start of their career, and during the Uncle Tupelo years, but it’s not like they’ve forgotten how to rock. It seems, rather, that they’ve become those grownups who drank at least five days out of the week during college, then three or four after, and then down to once in a while when they got married. Jeff Tweedy has a 13 year-old kid now. I would not be surprised if he was more worried about how his 401K and college funds are doing than whether he’ll ever reach the heights of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot again. Maybe the loss of Jay Bennett had something to do with their mellowing, but this should’ve been counter-acted by the inclusion of Nels Cline, whose main job in Wilco seems to be impersonating Neil Young & Crazy Horse circa 1979 as adeptly as possible.

When I saw Wilco at Bonnaroo a few weeks ago (yes, don’t tease), they did a version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” that felt like it was about 25 minutes long, and was completely enthralling. Even though Jeff is looking more like a bewildered cat-lady with every passing day, the band still sounded tight and energetic. They also played “Wilco (The Song)” and “Bull Black Nova” off of this new album. I’ve decided that “Bull Black Nova”, which I quite enjoyed that day, and still do now that I’ve heard it on record, is actually “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” for 2009. It’s shorter, not quite as weird, and almost as monotonous. It’s still a great track, but it does seem to represent a band that is shrinking into themselves, rather than trying to grow. And who knows, they’re probably fine with the current state of their sound. Sky Blue Sky and its Volkswagen commercials probably attracted a few more AAA fans than they’ve ever had before, so as long as the money’s good and the songs aren’t actively dull (is that a paradox?), they won’t look to change. Hopefully Tweedy’s sentiment of “I don’t care any more”, as he repeats on “You Never Know” isn’t directed at his songwriting.

I can’t really berate Wilco for mellowing out and getting old – it’s generally what happens in life, unless you’re some sort of freak of nature. This album doesn’t reflect the band resting on their laurels perhaps as much as Sky Blue Sky does – it’s definitely more engaging – but, it’s no YHF, or even A Ghost Is Born. But hey, considering the average cost of raising a kid is now about $200,000, not including college, and those rehab bills may not be fully paid off yet either, I’m surprised the band hasn’t put out a record every six months.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on a band that has cemented its place in music history, not least for opening for Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Boss within the last few years. Maybe this is just like when In Rainbows came out – I wanted this record to be as perfect and moving as the band’s best, because I was too young to appreciate their best when it was first released. And maybe I’m just not realizing how good I’ve got it.

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