Hardcore Wilco fans will tell you that there was nothing wrong with Sky Blue Sky, the band’s last LP from 2007, and while they’d be correct in this observation, there was still something almost unclassifiably dull about the whole experience. It lacked the record label hype of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the sonic experimentalism of A Ghost is Born; and while it didn’t suck by any stretch of the imagination, it was almost too straightforward for music listeners with any sort of contextual background on lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy to really process. Any heavy rotation of the album was largely out of respect rather than an impulsive craving.
Apparently Tweedy had been saving up his impetuousness for this, Wilco’s seventh album, as his tongue has never been buried so deeply in his cheek. All the signs are there. Eponymous title? Check. Quirky artwork? Camels and birthday cake, check. Self-referential opening title track? Check. “Put on your headphones before you explode/Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby.” Somewhere, Frank Zappa is smiling.
But it’s at the end of this first cut where the shenanigans stop, and Tweedy’s brilliance sheds its jester’s robes for more familiar opprobrious garments on “Deeper Down”. “Deeper down/He felt the insult of a kiss”, Tweedy whispers, almost in A Ghost is Born-like fashion. The record doesn’t let up after that, even reaching points by Wilco’s standards which would be considered pretty dark, until the wispy “You and I” duet with Leslie Feist reverses the mood of the album.
Sonically, this is one of the more diverse recordings in Wilco’s history. There is plenty to rock out to, between the title track and the barroom piano-tinged “You Never Know”, but the album doesn’t lack introspection either. “One Wing” and “Deeper Down” recall the sort of glum, downbeat moments of Ghost… and Summerteeth; yet this time there’s hope on the part of the singer (“I’ll Fight”). And “Bull Black Nova” is quite simply one of the best songs Tweedy has ever written. Instruments pile up from the beginning, one after another, creating paranoid harmonies and almost losing control until a key change resets the tension. This repeats for a couple minutes until the intensity of both guitars and the keyboard, who’ve been chirping at each other throughout, blend with distortion into a single, defiantly atonal strain while Tweedy sings “Blood on the sofa/Blood in the sink,” and concludes what the song’s already suggested about the inevitable guilt the singer feels.
In a completely reverential sort of way, Wilco has always been a bit of a jam band. The opening of the song establishes the tone, the melody and lyrics guide it along; but it’s in that two to (sometimes) thirteen minute window afterwards where the group really shines. Like telling Leonardo Da Vinci, “You’ve molded this lump of clay into a perfect sphere, now smash it and see what you come up with.” This playfulness which seemed, at times, to be at a loss on Sky Blue Sky, is here on Wilco (the album) in full effect. Clearly, any critically perceived notions of how “safe” this record sounds is not Tweedy running out of ideas or abilities, but simply making the music he wants to create. And like other established artists such as Beck or Radiohead, it will be very difficult to find fault with anything Wilco does in the future.