Friday, August 21, 2009

Wilco -- Wilco (the album)

Wilco -- Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch)

The follow up to Sky Blue Sky finds Wilco maturing into a comfortable sound, with Jeff Tweedy continuing to spin out excellent retro-‘70s FM rock and pop, played with expertise. A song here or there gives a nod to the band’s experimental bent, but more often, the muso tendency is subjugated to serve the songs.

While somewhat underwhelming on the first couple of spins, further plays reveal that Wilco has come up with a darned good album, a mix of whimsy, experimentation and heartfelt sentiments. It breaks no new ground, but has plenty of songs that are hard to shake.

One of those songs is a tune that requires careful listening to the lyrics. “I’ll Fight” is a mid-tempo acoustic driven song with a simple, passionate refrain, as Tweedy declares how he’ll go, fight, kill and die for someone. On the surface, the song sounds like a love song of extreme devotion. But listen more carefully, and you realize that Tweedy is literally fighting and killing -- he’s a soldier who is taking the place of someone else. He notes he “won’t regret the fairness of our trade....for you to live, I took your place.” This was a common practice back in the day, where someone with enough money could pay for someone else to go to war for them (President Grover Cleveland did so to avoid serving in the Civil War). This is a powerful track.

“Bull Black Nova” is equally powerful, but more direct, yet artier. This is prog Wilco, a song centering on a tense lockstep rhythm which periodically releases into some jazzy guitar riffing. The band plays with intensity and precision, building tension and releasing while Tweedy sings of a fugitive, with blood on his hands and everywhere else. The music perfectly fits the atmosphere and confusion of someone on the run. This is an instant classic.

Elsewhere, the band is more tender and playful. For a good example of the band’s playful side, just hit play and listen to “Wilco (the song)”. The song is driven by Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards as Tweedy stretches a winsome melody over a tight and vibrant rhythm that bounces up and down. Meanwhile, Tweedy assures listeners that no matter how bad things get, that they can put on their headphones and “Wilco will love you baby.” This is a 21st Century update of Lou Reed’s “Turn to Me”.

Meanwhile, the band gets sly on what seems to be a romantic romp on “You And I”. With Leslie Feist providing supporting vocals, the acoustic music is aw-shucks ‘70s pop love. But Tweedy is effectively declaring intimacy unnecessary: “Oh, I don’t want you to know/and you don’t need to know/that much about me.” I don’t know if therapists will approve of this.

This stands in contrast to the powerful album closer, “Everlasting Everything”. Tweedy’s voice is front and center, backed by just a piano. Tweedy simply observes that everything must die or fall apart. But his love will last forever, “or nothing could mean anything at all.” The languid verses are offset by the quick rush of the chorus, which is extremely effective.

The worst that can be said about this album is that it doesn’t have any unifying musical or lyrical theme. Putting that aside, Tweedy is still writing exceptional songs and this band is by far the best vehicle to put them across. Wilco = essential.

1 comment:

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