It’s a very good time in the Wilco camp. The Chicago band’s new album sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first week to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart.
It’s also appearing on many lists of the best music released so far in 2009, a hot topic here at Frequency over the past few days.
It wasn’t on my list, but not because I think it’s bad. In fact, I think it’s a step in the right direction from what I believe is one of the world’s very best rock bands.
For me, “Wilco (the Album)” is all about taking the good with the not-great-but-not-bad-either.
It’s good that Jeff Tweedy is healthy and, seemingly, happy with his band mates and Wilco’s arc right now. What once was a revolving door of musicians — Jeff Tweedy and the Shaggy Circle of Sidemen, sort of — has stabilized over the past few years, since the addition of mega-guitarist Nels Cline and, well, a couple other dudes.
As a result of that stabilization (and, I’d guess, getting older), Wilco’s sound has stabilized, too.
On Wilco’s unassailable first four records, the band altered course with each release, moving from standard alt-country to a noisier brand of roots music to bells-and-whistles pop to experimental rock over the course of about a decade.
Looking back, it seems the fifth album, “A Ghost Is Born,” was a document of transition. Sure, there were a couple of noisy numbers, but they towered above what was, sonically, a set of laid-back songs. And if “Ghost” was laid back, the follow-up, “Sky Blue Sky,” was positively languid; it’s a work masterfully crafted, but so polished that it lacks the rough edges that made Wilco’s early years so amazing. “Sky Blue Sky” is the Bob Ross of Wilco albums.
Which brings us to “Wilco (the Album),” a record no less polished, but at least a little livelier. There’s a sense of fun and whimsy in the new one that “Sky Blue Sky,” for all its precision, sorely lacked. That’s clear before you even hit the “Play” button; this thing is called “Wilco (the Album)” and starts with a song called “Wilco (the Song),” for crying out loud. And look at that cover! Clearly, after a couple albums of heavier material, the band is ready to let its goofy side show.
I’ve read plenty of contempt for “Wilco (the Song),” but I like it. Is it silly? Sure. But anyone who has seen Tweedy in concert knows he’s one of the funniest frontmen in rock. And when he calls his band “a sonic shoulder for you to cry” on, and declares that “Wilco will love you baby,” it feels like an acknowledgment that he’s finally, totally embracing his music’s appeal and the spotlight it’s put him under.
Most of the album feels that way: like a band in its comfort zone. “One Wing” and “You Never Know” each have an easygoing vibe, as if they were pulled straight from the pop radio programming of decades past. Both are solid. “Deeper Down” starts, stops, twists and turns like a song from the “Summerteeth” sessions, but without the sugar-shock sheen. And the punchy “Sunny Feeling” may not blow minds, but its simple, exuberant chorus will set feet to tapping.
The one song that strays from the light-rock aesthetic is a highlight, too. “Bull Black Nova” is the album’s weirdest tune, all jagged tension that builds and builds while Tweedy sings unnervingly about blood on the sofa, in the sink, in the trunk. The guitars freak out in dissonant conclusion just as the narrator does the same. Mark my words: It’s going to smoke live.
The problem with “Wilco (the Album)” is that any momentum gained by the aforementioned pop songs is squelched almost immediately by sleepy, meandering stuff like “Country Disappeared” and “Solitaire” and “You And I,” a song that features vocals by Canadian songstress Feist and that’s just too cutesy for its own good. Most of the second half of the record, in fact, is a return to the subdued style that drags down “Sky Blue Sky,” except this time, the songs themselves aren’t as interesting.
As I said, I do think “Wilco (the Album)” is a step in the right direction for Wilco. Because while “Sky Blue Sky” is probably a more consistent record, the new one’s high points are higher, and the whole thing sounds happier.
Happy is good. If Jeff Tweedy is happy, I’m happy for him. And if he’s happy with his band and his music after years and years of traipsing across boundaries, that’s terrific. We’ll be blessed with a great band playing solid songs for many years to come (not to mention an absolutely jaw-dropping live act.)
The trade-off, of course, is that we’ll lose — or may have already lost — a band that ignores expectations and insists on experimenting with new directions and new sounds. Bands like that make records that excite and provoke. “Wilco (the Album)” is a nice listen, but it doesn’t do much of either of those things.