Wilco has been kind of a black horse on the scene of – let’s put it that way shall we – mainstream popular music. As a group holding a Grammy award for their 2004 effort ‘A Ghost Is Born’ and having recently appeared in virtually every credible and established TV show there might be on American television (excluding Saturday Night Live… at least so far), one who has only heard and never listened to them might think they are country-experimental-art rock hotshots. But they are not.
Wilco – lead by brilliant singer-songwriter and poet, Jeff Tweedy – is rather the Bill Murray of bands: inexplicably cool and moderate, sometimes melancholic, sometimes harsh but always lovable and empathic. Wilco has been on the go for 17 years. That sure is a long time, so the question might go: are the broken flowers of 2011’s ‘The Whole Love’ stuck on groundhog day, might they even be lost in translation?
Wilco published two songs prior to the albums’s release, now-we-know track 2 ‘I Might’ and the laid-back and rather nicely done cover for Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love My Label’, as a nod to their now-independent standing with their aptly named dBpm records. These songs surely showed that the current line-up of Wilco is now a coherent band with tons of style, totally getting each other. ‘I Might’ was regarded to be a solid song, nothing more but in the structure of the album it plays an important role: with the distorted bassline, it serves as a bridge to bring the atmospheres and instrumentation to the level of acoustic guitars after the really aggressive and daring opening of ‘Art of Almost’ which simply has to be up there among Wilco’s most extreme and beautifully complex songs with epic strings, guitarist Nels Cline’s mad solo and outro, and obviously the rock-solid performance of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche.
After this effective and grand opening, songs take on a more mellow and relaxed character with lots of acoustic guitars, sometimes with a rock-n-roll kind of swing with emphasized drumming (‘Dawned On Me’, ‘Standing O’), or in a fashion of classic ballads like the strings-accompanied ‘Black Moon’. Musically, the album’s second half strenthens this ‘autumn-ish, rural-melancholy’ feeling ending in the 12-minute ‘One Sunday Morning (A Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)’ which serves as a perfect take-off with its feeling of moving on.
Lyrically, ‘The Whole Love’ is definitely a top Wilco album. Jeff Tweedy’s thoughts are rather easy to feel for; they are general happenings – ordinary, even -, told with such soul, heart and wittyness, only few are capable of. News have also been saying that this time, the method of songwriting was different: Tweedy often sang in gibberish over the instrumentals, and used those mumblings as starting points to how the lyrics should soundlike, and chose the words accordingly. And of course, the case of ‘Born Alone’ is one
of the most curious: Tweedy jotted down the final words from lines of poems by Emily Dickinson and wrote the lyrics around them. (It’s only the icing on the cake that the song ends with a glissando in Shepard scale: “So I came up with the idea that we would end the song with a Shepard tone, which is a series of chords that when repeated continuously sounds like its descending or ascending. It’s kind of a musical trick—it sounds like it’s endlessly going deeper and deeper into the abyss” – said Tweedy.)
So how is ‘The Whole Love’? It is whole love. This album is Wilco’s essence, kicking off as experimental and careless as ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, contains lyrics that are easily on par with songs from ‘Summerteeth’ or the Grammy-winner ‘A Ghost Is Born’, containing daring guitar textures from Nels Cline that are comparable to those on ‘Wilco (The Album)’.
Only, the whole of the album is much more coherent – both lyrically and musically – and presents us a laid-back band comprised of individuals with unique personalities, style and knowledge of technique and composition.
Watch some live recordings:
‘Born Alone’ live on Letterman
Art of Almost live on Letterman