This year, I fell for Wilco (the band). Hard. It started with 1996’s double-disc Being There, a chance purchase that hooked me right away with opener “Misunderstood.” Ignoring the fact that it’s alt-country and not out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll, it spoke to me like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run minus the gang violence. I too was “short on long term goals” and “so misunderstood” and such. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot followed, and it was even better. Frontman Jeff Tweedy hit me with another strong opener, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and he did so seemingly effortlessly. Summerteeth finally confirmed it; I was a fan.
So I suppose there are pros and cons to hearing Wilco (The Album) mere months after falling in love with the band’s best songs. Had I been around earlier, maybe I wouldn't be as disappointed by its laid-back quality. Some bands benefit from time numbing the sweet taste of their successes (God damn you, Cursive). Maybe I’m taking Wilco’s discography for granted. But at the same time, I feel that, with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Ashes of American Flags” and a bevy of Billy Bragg covers fresh in my mind, I might be the one to call the slightest of bullshits on the bevy of praise Wilco (The Album) has garnered so far.
Wilco (The Album) is an OK record. It’s not bad. It’s not brilliant. It is just OK, like a lot of the albums great bands tend to put out later in their careers. The record combines bits of humor and the macabre, but for the most part, it’s just a reliably solid alt-country disc.
“Wilco (The Song”) opens with self-aware Wikipedia humor. “Are you under the impression / this isn’t your life?” asks Tweedy. “Do you dabble in depression / Is someone twisting a knife in your back?” he presses, as if he doesn’t know my answer. “Wilco / Wilco / Wilco will love you baby,” he reminds me over chiming bells and pounding drums. It’s no “Misunderstood,” but it’s still a welcome set of “aural arms open wide / A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.”
“Deeper Down” dials down the energy a little, with gentle steel guitar. Everything is easy/breezy until the record’s middle or so, when “Bull Black Nova” and “You and I” hit. Summerteeth’s “She’s a Jar” casually dropped domestic abuse references, but “Nova” goes even darker, detailing a murderer’s paranoid perspective -- “They’re coming up the shoulders / What have they found? / I wonder if they know / I’m in a bull black Chevy Nova / silhouetted by the setting sun.” Coming mere minutes after the goofs of “Wilco (The Song),” it’s shockingly frank, with its list of all the places the victim’s blood can be found. Claustrophobic piano and guitar lines make it all the more foreboding. In contrast is “You and I,” a love song featuring guest vocalist Feist. The tune pledges fidelity and hope in spite of miscommunication and mistrust. A tender track, it retroactively makes “Bull Black Nova” all the more disturbing, as if it were its prequel.
After that tender number, though, the record drifts into a haze. All of a sudden, you’re at the twinkling outro of “Everlasting Everything” and the album is over. Images of Tom Petty and George Harrison float by (especially during “You Never Know,” which bites from “My Sweet Lord”). While Wilco’s records aren’t perfect, they've never so steadily slipped into such a relaxed, bland state. Which is perhaps why I feel so let down. Wilco (The Album) is pleasant, but I’ve spent the first half of 2009 being completely blown away by Wilco (the back catalog).