Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wilco (The Album) - Wilco

Wilco (The Album)

Nonesuch Records.

SCQ Rating: 71%

Jeff Tweedy has always been a breeze of fresh air amid your average assemblage of egocentric songwriters. As if Wilco didn’t already own my heart in the summer of 2004 with A Ghost is Born, Tweedy gave what is hands-down my favourite Wilco interview to Pitchfork, wherein he explained the true nature of his rehab-stint. Not only did he deflate rock’n’roll rumours by admitting his time in rehab was to find remedy for his migraines and anxiety attacks, Tweedy also spoke out against artists who embrace bullshit rumours, citing Bob Dylan as a prime example of a songwriter who – if one looks into his timeline – can be seen buying into his own press. Such mysticism connected to the songwriter as an ‘enigmatic character’ meant nothing to Tweedy, and that was one of many interviews where the Wilco frontman refused to play into the rock and roll game. And ever since, I’ve believed in Tweedy because, despite his success and talent, the man never stood for any one thing. Always skirting big questions in favour of vague lyricism and a chameleon-esque set of musicians and styles, Tweedy focused on his thoughts and feelings, not the state of the nation or trendy charities. Whether that sounds quaint or selfish, that’s the role of a songwriter and not once has Tweedy forgotten his day job. Everything else is celebrity.

Upon the release of Wilco (The Album), however, and its first single ‘Wilco (The Song)’, it’s apparent that Tweedy has never said so little. Ever since the record’s announcement months ago, I’ve digested the exclamation of journalists, bloggers and fans all brimming over the album’s title, calling it “cheeky” and “clever”. Besides my opinion that had they simply rendered it a self-titled record, it would forego the cutesy and downright pointless (The Album) portion, it’s disheartening that the album’s title – or lack thereof – has earned the most headlines from this anticipated release. Yet for the life of me, I cannot grasp another angle worth brimming about in this follow-up to Sky Blue Sky, the first creative and stylistic standstill in Wilco’s decade-plus history. No, Feist’s lovely voice doesn’t change a thing.

Although less jam-oriented and breezy than Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (The Album) finds the Chicago-based sextet’s prerogative virtually unchanged, ambling down ho-hum acoustic patches on ‘Solitaire’ (which hints at ‘Muzzle of Bees’ greatness but never delivers) and hokey adult-contemporary musings on ‘Sonny Feeling’ and ‘Country Disappeared’. The band’s comfort in such laid-back melodies – not to mention some journalist’s accusation of “dad-rock” - are highlighted by the lifted George Harrison track ‘You Never Know’ and worst-Wilco-chorus-ever contender ‘I’ll Fight’. By any other band these are mildly skippable tracks but, as maddeningly reminded by Wilco (The Album), these songs represent further proof that Tweedy and Co. are losing the artistic edge that made their earlier works (Being There, Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born) so notorious.

As thoroughly as Sky Blue Sky shared less ingenious tracks with moments of greatness, Wilco (The Album) contains several instances of inspired resurrection. And strangely enough, these tracks are mapped out much like those on that 2007 release: a top-heavy selection of diverse Wilco hits (here we get the 70s strut of ‘Wilco (The Song)’, the supple build of a poet’s swansong on ‘One Wing’) and a piano-based closer that speaks in forevers (trade ‘On & On & On’ for ‘Everlasting Everything’). What sticks out like a black sheep (sorry…) is inevitably ‘Bull Black Nova’, a krautrock epic that breaches Wilco (The Album)’s curbed ambitions with the scope and intensity of the Wilco we knew five years ago. ‘Bull Black Nova’ and these other highlights (toss the brilliant ‘Deeper Down’ into that category) deserve better neighbours than the friendly but benign filler that pads this release.

When Tweedy blew off any notions of songwriter-mystery as journalistic hyperbole, his comments came off as brilliant because they stood on the shoulders of Wilco’s commendable, unique work. And besides those landmark albums, anyone with an interest in Wilco knew Tweedy – the lyricist who wrote some of the most cutting words alt country has ever heard, the front-man who hired and fired musicians with a dictator’s sense of power, the songwriter who detonated a division of Warner Brothers Records - was no Joe-Blow. Yet five years and two satisfactory albums later, his insistence on being a simple songwriter is beginning to make sense. After years of dodging questions into his lyrics and albums, maybe Wilco (The Album) is that empty statement Tweedy has exhaustingly sought to create. If it’s a personal victory for Wilco, it’s a shrugging delay-of-game for us.

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