Wilco: “The Whole Love”
Is there any band more self-conscious, or at least more self-aware—more encumbered by the weight of their own history and cloudy mythology—than Wilco? Before answering, I bid you remember that this is the band whose last album was called Wilco (The Album), complete with “Wilco (The Song).” Their new one has a real title—The Whole Love—but it also has a first single which hinges on the this line: “You won’t set the kinds on fire/ Oh, but I might.” A gesture toward all those who hate on this band for being purveyors of “dad rock?” Given who we’re dealing with, I think the answer couldn’t possibly be anything but a yes.
The band may never have sounded more caught up in the web of its own history than it does here, on an album perched rather precariously between the power pop and country-rock leanings of their early albums, the sonic rabbit holes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, and yes, a bit of the more temperate, classicist rock and roll of the last couple of records. I’ll give them this, though: They don’t sound comfortable just standing there, hiding in the shadow of their own checkered past. More than anything they’ve done since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Whole Love has a twitch, a pulse of something risky and bold. And unlike Foxtrot, this one isn’t wrapped up in feedback and gauze; it sounds like the work of musicians recording in the same room together, feeling out the studio space and their own parameters as a working unit, setting their eyes toward adventure like they haven’t done in a decade or more.
And yet, this is still Wilco we’re talking about: They measure their adventure in spoonfuls. They open the album with a red herring, a song called “Art of Almost” that clocks in at over seven minutes and bobs its head to a fidgety krautrock groove. There are shards of sound and some guitar heroics from Nels Cline that set the stage for a cantankerous and bold rock album that never quite materializes. They do match, nay, exceed the brilliance of that opening gambit on the closing song, a twelve-minute folk song called “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smily’s Boyfriend),” a simply stunning track that justifies its silly title for its sheer, bravura act of restraint; it’s so simple it could almost be called a drone, and it seems to ape Nick Drake without remorse, yet the lyric and vocal from singer Jeff Tweedy are sublimely soulful, and the band’s performance is warm and spare and perfect. I would almost advise not listening to the song, because once you’ve heard it, the whole album will just feel like a tedious buildup to that final song’s beauty.
But as for the rest of that adventure I mentioned before, it mostly falls through the cracks—literally. The production and recording of this album—both excellent, I should say—leave shards of ambient noise and sonic details that make The Whole Love a rewarding headphones experience. But while their little trick of smuggling in some of their more “experimental” leanings is certainly an admirable try, it doesn’t quite hide the truth that the bulk of this recording can’t help but disclose—namely, that Tweedy’s songs just aren’t that good, at least not when he’s confining himself to more traditional pop structures and conventional running times.
“I Might” is a pretty good example, actually; its playful little farfisa organ figures grant the illusion that it’s a garage rock gem in the Attractions vein, but the reality is that the hook isn’t much to speak of; if the band cut loose a little more they could more than compensate, but their dogged focus on studiocraft leaves no room for the kind of ramshackle, full-band fury that a song like this practically demands. Conversely, the studio sheen and sensualist detail adorns “Sunloathe” quite brilliantly, but the craft is so precise that it only calls attention to Tweedy’s obvious tip of the hat to George Harrison in full chamber mode.
That’s the trouble with Wilco in a nutshell. The knock against them has always been that they’re little more than the sum of their record collection, but of course, a lot of great bands have fueled spectacular albums with little more than raw energy and classic rock reference-spotting. It’s the raw energy that this outfit lacks, I think. They play their influences straight-up, and twitch with excitement over the possibility of doing something instinctive and expansive—but then they relegate those instincts to the opening song and to little flourishes here and there, choosing instead to hang their hats on songs that offer fine but ultimately rather tedious variations on familiar country and power pop influences. (It’s the country-ish stuff that works better, I should say; the spindly “Black Moon” is not without its charms, while the charging “Born Alone” reminds us of the different shades of boredom invented by The Album.)
The ironic thing about this venture—which is truly, I hasten to say, their best work in a while, even if that’s measured praise—is that it has a kind of tentative vibe, like the band is having a good time sketching out the possibilities of their Chicago studio space, but rather than channel that uncertainty into something brave, they mostly fall back into the same mundane tropes that always seem to tie them to the ground. Rather than feed their classicist leanings through the murk of their sonic noodling, they end up with a kind of steady, tension-free intermingling of the two, one that emphasizes their sense of craft but not their flair for adventure, their knack for sound but not any particular penchant for song. In other words, The Whole Love turns out to be an album borne of references to Wilco’s near and distant pasts, which I guess makes it another quintessential, perfectly pleasant, and mostly forgettable Wilco album.