Friday, February 8, 2008

Sky Blue Sky - Wilco

Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch Records

SCQ Rating: 72%

1996: Band divides fan-base with their ambitious double album, Being There, which found a devoted following while pissing off every Uncle Tupelo fan in America.

2000: Band divides fan-base with a sun-kissed exploration of Beatles-inspired pop and lyrics about abusing, killing one’s lover.

2002: Jim O’Rourke promises Jeff Tweedy that hiring him as producer will ensure Wilco being booted from Warner Records. He wasn’t kidding and the end result, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, delivers a fallout that befuddles music execs and inspires millions. Oh yeah, and divides fans.

2004: As quickly as it came, Tweedy and Co. abandon their electronic art-country moniker and release A Ghost is Born; a record largely obsessed with the guitar solo. Some fans are left frustrated while the rest eat it up.

Between and after these years, the band also committed themselves to two volumes of under-the-rug Woody Gunthrie covers and a live record that despite being awesome, is inconsequential in the way most live albums tend to be by mandate.

This shamefully brief and self-serving chronology is to illustrate something about both Wilco and Wilco fans: it’s impossible to please everyone. And Wilco’s indifference to fan support has accumulated a discography of nearly unrivaled comparison (as far as contemporary American bands are concerned), where each album is a new exploration and challenge for both songwriters and open-minded fans.

So strangely enough, it was an uneasy sign when everyone and their grandmother adored Sky Blue Sky. Like the opening guitar-plucking of ‘Either Way’ is as welcoming as the Ice Cream truck’s jingle on a hot summer’s day, the record felt so effortless, so pretty, so laidback in its optimism and melancholy. And like everyone else, I was excited, asking friends if they had heard the new Wilco yet and when they shake their heads, widening my eyes to silently suggest “Well, maybe you should.” I still think everyone should, if only to hear the 1, 2, 3 punch of the first three songs. Alternately resigned and occasionally tense, these opening tracks are impressive additions to the Wilco catalogue.

After the Thin Lizzy-esque triple guitar climax of Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky takes it down a few notches on the title track, a lovely acoustic number that would be easy to dismiss if it wasn’t so damn easy to listen to. And that’s where us fans get all divided up again, because this pretty ambivalence (outlined by Tweedy himself as he sings “I survived/That’s good enough for me”) dominates many of these following songs. It’s still a Wilco album, and a respectable one at that, but the slowly unraveling song structures and cryptic lyrics have been largely omitted this time around.

When the band decides to shake up their sound from the acoustic laments, like on, um, “Shake It Off”, the band misses the mark so badly it makes listening to this record beginning through end nearly impossible. Any shortcomings before or after this song are mere suggestions -- details I would’ve preferred elaborated upon or left out – yet in both melody and timing, “Shake It Off” is the aural embodiment of that feeling you get right before vomiting.

It’s a record so charmingly quaint that critiquing its weak spots makes one feel like they’re throwing rocks at a younger sibling. It’s sweet and harmless, so just play nice.

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