CD Review of Wilco (The Album) by Wilco
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)
Recommended if you like
Feist, son volt, uncle tupelo
Label
Nonesuch
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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B
y now, 15 years into Wilco’s history, you pretty much like the band or don’t; its ethereal pop is a well-known commodity. For those who haven't heard the band's own prerelease stream of the new record at wilcoworld.net, here's the CliffsNotes: Old fans will wilt, lovingly, at the sound of it, and nonfans will be bored to tears. A new group of devotees will come to the band via Toronto's Broken Social Scene pop-music collaborative thanks to "You and I," a wonderful, mellow duet between frontman Jeff Tweedy and BSS member Feist. Wilco (The Album) doesn't appear to contain an all-time Wilco highlight along the lines of "A Shot in the Arm" or "The Late Greats," but that's cool, because Wilco's moving forward and not trying to fob off thinly veiled rewritings of tried-and-true concert anthems. We've come to expect masterful guitar work, no-nonsense song intros, and flighty, meandering-but-not-too-long outros, and they're all here on Wilco (The Album). Its music continues the high-tech, heavy-handed, digital production of the last few albums, the arrangements loaded with, paradoxically, Wilco's standard lineup of pre-digital instruments: Vintage Hammond organ, acoustic guitar, real drums, Wurlitzer keyboards, and piano. And that's your synopsis.

On to bigger issues: Jeff Tweedy loves his fans, and they love him. Wilco shows are somehow intimate affairs, even though the guy fronting the band is talking, mostly one-way, to an audience of thousands. He mysteriously makes large concert halls feel like coffeehouses—albeit really loud coffeehouses. Wilco (The Album) leads off with "Wilco (The Song)," a love letter to fans guaranteed to become an instant live classic if it hasn't already. What's not to like, with lines like, "Are times getting tough? Are the roads you travel rough? Have you had enough of the old? Tired of being exposed to the cold? Stare at your stereo, put on your headphones, before you explode. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby." In "You Never Know," he continues the dialogue, reassuring his community of fans to hang in there—despite these troubled times – in "You Never Know": "Come on children, you're acting like children, every generation thinks it's the end of the world...every generation thinks it's the last." As in, we're not. Panicky times will come and go. Heck, Tweedy and his buddies have themselves survived a couple of Iraq wars, Sept. 11, the Internet boom and bust, and the current scorched-earth recession if you throw in their days together in Uncle Tupelo. He's just saying, you know, hold on to what you’ve got as best you can, it's gonna get better. That cut, with its alt-country appropriation of the dominant rhythmic figure from Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," is a lock to become a concert fave, too.

The biggest issue at hand is attempting to figure out just where Jeff Tweedy and his band fits into the greater context of rock history, as Wilco – in band years – moves into late middle age. One would think the group will end up enshrined in Cleveland, based on the strength of Tweedy's lyrics. Tweedy, a published poet himself, writes lines that represent a throwback to an age when poetry still had some worth to the average American. That's not saying that Tweedy – or any rock star, even Bobby freakin' Dylan, thank you very much – is capable of writing great poetry. They might be, but that's not really for music fans to judge: To paraphrase Joe Jackson, our brains have been brutalized by bass and terrorized by treble a bit too much to discern truly great poetry from the merely serviceable. Either way, Jeff Tweedy clearly puts much work into his lyrics, not just ending his writing process with the first thing he dashes down. That's a big deal in an era when, for each song with decent lyrics out there in Radioland and Internetland, there are 10,000 "Crank Thats," 10,000 "Womanizers" and "Flies on the Wall," and 10,000 more vapid country hits about some dude doin' sombebody wrong (even though he's got him a big heart). Tweedy actually thinks about the words he writes; his intimate portraits of everyday situations and emotions have that rare power to make the trivial beautiful, tragic, or at least interesting. He uses just enough abstraction to make us think he's singing to each of us, individually. Like the great poets of yore, from the Dickinsons to the Frosts, he needs neither gang wars nor screaming breakup fights serving as fodder for his verse. Just a little ironic happening around the house can set him off.

"Country Disappeared" from Wilco (The Album) isn't one of those everyday songs, but rather a quasi-political lament, a type of song occurring with more frequency on recent Wilco records. It's about American culture going down the drain, not the anti-conservative rant you might expect from the guy who wrote a song titled "Ashes of American Flags." (That song, it turns out, wasn't itself too terribly political. But he's on Rush Limbaugh's list of cultural criminals for a number of transgressions, including campaigning for Obama.) "Country Disappeared" assesses our post-Bush America, where cameras in the TV news helicopters feed the anchorman's maw, whether we want it or not: "Every evening we can watch from above, crushed cities like a bug. Fold ourselves into each other's blood, and turn our faces up to the sun." The imagery seems to channel the classic 1919 poem "Anecdote of the Jar," in which Wallace Stevens ruminates about the vessel he left on a Tennessee hilltop: "The wilderness rose up to it, And sprawled around, no longer wild." Maybe Tweedy's talking about the disappearing awareness of the growing emotional spaces between us, because we have our faces buried in our laptops and Blackberrys and PSPs and reality-TV shows all our waking hours and are getting so wrapped up in unreality that we haven't noticed what's actually going on in the real world. Or maybe he's just referring to Detroit. That's the beauty of it: We get to decide with Tweedy's lyrics, while Miley Cyrus's vapid warblings leave little room for interpretation.

Whether or not Wilco's lyrics are helping build the band a Rock Hall-worthy legacy, the band at minimum's a palatable way for us ancient rockers raised on 1970s album-oriented FM rock to get our music fix, updated for 2009, without resorting to putting tiresome old junk on our iPods, or worse yet, new material from old retreads such as Tom Petty, whose redneck-gone-folkie act is wearing thin. While we've grown up and are no longer smokin' in the boys' room, we still loves us some old-skool rock. Tweedy and Co. offer us thinking fans an alternative to Petty's palaver. The new record is as good as a Wilco fan would want; there's no dropoff whatsoever from Sky Blue Sky or A Ghost is Born. Enjoy its rare goodness, a nice and shiny hunk of tempered steel hidden in the container ship of slag the music industry's shipping this summer.

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