With each new Wilco LP, the discussion seems to gravitate away from the album itself and instead revolve around Wilco the band and their presence/importance within the contemporary rock scene. After the two consecutive masterpieces of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, it’s not hard to see why. Wilco had evolved before our eyes, from an alt-country half of Uncle Tupelo to an avant-garde, modern rock trailblazer. They stood up to their label, exchanged band members, and eventually became synonymous with consistently strong experimental records and impeccable live shows. If anything really negative could have been said about their last couple albums, it was that the bar was set so high from previous work that it made critical success for their less-than-perfect records nearly impossible. Critics didn’t want to see Wilco mess around or simply write good songs, they wanted rock immortality.
The Whole Love seems to be a really tidy compromise; experimentation is reintroduced, and the noise of early-to-mid 00’s Wilco has returned without abandoning the trend of the focused 70’s rock elements from their last two albums. In other words, production is tight, while the songwriting is allowed to roam a bit. The record bookends musical oddities, with a seven-minute opener (“The Art of Almost”) that is soaked with chaotic instrumentals and a discordant jam; and later a twelve-minute acoustic closer that rarely strays from its form, making only subtle musical changes throughout while still managing to be gorgeous and compelling.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this Wilco’s best album, but absolutely a no-brainer to name it their most well-rounded. The effortless shifts in sound and direction could only be achieved at such a high level by a band who’s been there and done that. “I Might” is a resounding organ-driven rocker, but it bursts in off the heels of the clouded album opener. “Black Moon” meanders in with its melancholy Neil Young cues after the rollicking, joyful “Dawned On Me” guitars simmer down. Elsewhere, cuts like “Born Alone” remain in their own delightfully eccentric universe, showing off an air-tight percussion and bass section while expanding upon the whims of the electric guitars by gradually moving the song away from its perky melody until it finally gives way and pushes it down a spiral of key-changes and finally fizzles out. It’s rare to find songs that challenge so much while they reward, and The Whole Love is filled with them.
Let’s hope that, as much fun as it might be to break down Wilco’s discography every time they put out something new, this album can put to rest any lingering doubts about the band. There’s something almost supernatural in the enjoyment of these springy rhythms and carefree hooks, as well as the more complex, less-than-readily-accessible art-house pieces. Wilco has expertly combined the less complex songwriting of their more recent work, with the expansive imagination of their earlier stuff, and all without showing the stitches where they sewed it all together. They’ve solidified themselves as the greatest American band playing today, possibly of all time, and they don’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.