Wilco: “Wilco (The Album)”
When a fifteen year-old band decides to make their seventh studio LP a self-titled affair, it’s time to sit up and pay attention: They’re trying to tell you something. Often, the self-titled album is meant to serve as a sort of statement of identity, a way for the band to say, “This is who we are now.” At times, it marks a fresh start– a back-to-basics approach after a period of aimlessness or excess. Other times, it’s simply a consolidation of strengths, an effort on the band’s part to highlight what they’re good at and smooth over their weak spots.
Wilco’s seventh album isn’t quite self-titled, however; the name of the record is Wilco (The Album), a goofy but fun moniker that kinda-sorta falls into the self-titled camp, but not really. Fittingly, then, the album is kinda-sorta a statement of purpose and identity for Wilco, but not really.
Certainly, it’s a reflection of who the band is and where they’re at in 2009, fifteen years after they founded in the wake of the late Uncle Tupelo. But to say that it’s a deliberate effort on Jeff Tweedy and Co.’s part to sum up the essence of Wilco for us suggests that Wilco has an essence, an identity, which is just about the one thing they’ve never quite had. The number of stylistic shifts the band has gone through is exceeded only by the number of incarnations the band’s line-up has had– I’m pretty sure this is the first Wilco album to bear the same roster as its predecessor– so to say that The Album is a statement of purpose or vision suggests a level of self-awareness and focus that has always seemed just beyond their reach.
The album, then, is less a statement than a revelation– a testimony to just how all-over-the-map the group really is, and just how scatterbrained their music can be. And honestly, that’s a little refreshing: Chicago music critic Jim DeRogatis has already pointed out that this is the first Wilco album that isn’t driven by some sort of narrative– it’s simply a collection of songs– and so while it may be a hodgepodge, it’s also the band’s most modest and unassuming record ever, and as such it has more than a few small, simple pleasures.
But a hodgepodge it remains: Rather than sounding like Wilco’s manifesto, it sounds like what happens when Wilco isn’t quite sure where to go next, and so it incorporates many familiar sounds from the band’s past. There’s some of the laid-back, classic-rock jamming of Sky Blue Sky, a bit of noodling weirdness that recalls A Ghost is Born, and some of the more straightforward pop of the band’s early days. Ultimately, what the record reveals is not what Wilco is, but what they could be; they’ve always wanted to be a pop band at heart– those instincts creep through even amidst the murk of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, via the direct melody of “Kamera” and the soulful swagger of “Hummingbird”– and The Album is their most populist record yet, something that is, in theory, fun to simply put on and play.
It doesn’t always work out that way: “You and I,” Tweedy’s duet with Leslie Feist, is a boring folk ditty that’s destined to be a big hit in Starbucks locations everywhere; “Country Disappeared” tries to be rousing but is instead flat and sleepy; “I’ll Fight” is a by-the-numbers classic-rock joint that justifies the “Dad-rock” label some critics have slapped on the band.
At times, the band strikes out for more adventurous ground, but even that seems indicative of the album’s problems. “Wilco (The Song)” opens the album with crunching power pop chords, and proves that the band doesn’t know when to let a good joke die. Its self-referential lyrics are meant to serve as a sort of lighthearted theme song for the band, and for the album, but it’s goofy and repetitive, and its jokey mood doesn’t square well with the rest of the record. Speaking of which, Tweedy’s lyrics are all over the place: I think “Country Disappeared” is supposed to be a political song, but it’s too lethargic to amount to much. Most of the lyrics are more personal, and some of them are really good– “One Wing” and “Deeper Down” both display a knack for storytelling and metaphor,” for example. “You Never Know,” however, boasts one of Tweedy’s all-time clunkiest opening lines: “Come on, children, you’re acting like children!”
Make no mistake: There are some real gems here. “One Wing” builds gradually from a quiet folk song to a soaring, arena-ready anthem, and it’s a terrific showcase of Wilco’s strengths in composition and musicality. “Bull Black Nova,” meanwhile, is bizarro art-rock with a side of kraut– its tension and nervous, shifting energy make it a standout, so much so that critics and fans alike seem to agree that it’s the album’s finest song. But that in itself is oddly problematic: It’s also the record’s strangest, most experimental song, and the fact that it works so much more effectively than the more straightforward pop offerings the band seems to favor shows just what sort of a corner they’re backed into. What should have been a summary of their ambitions turns out to be a summary of their record collection– a fractured, messy album that’s big on variety and not lacking in fine moments, but a mess nevertheless, with no sense of self present to help these songs congeal into The Album they might wish it to be.