Wilco Sky Blue Sky(Nonesuch Records) Buy it from Insound
If you'd been listening to Wilco for the past ten years and you had any doubts about Jeff Tweedy's intentions on their new record, they should have been immediately dispelled in the first few seconds of Either Way. It had been a matter of ritual for the band to begin their albums with a mournful tune yielding to cacophony or visa versa, but on Sky Blue Sky there isn't even a misplaced note on the opening number. What gives? Is Tweedy mellowing, selling out, becoming pussy-whipped, or (egads!) content? As usual, I could care less, preferring to deal with what's in front of me that I can see rather than what's behind it that I can't. In this case, however, one conclusion is inescapable and backed up by Tweedy's own testimony, which is that he just wanted to write an album that people liked to listen to for a change. So, out with the industrial noise and the soundscapes and the kitchen sink, and in with...Steely Dan?
Well, yes actually, the Dan does seem to be the organizing principle behind Sky Blue Sky. Here we have a collection of melodic tunes, immaculately performed and recorded, with jazzy progressions, obscure lyrics, plenty of room for masterful guitar passages and a dark undercurrent, a feeling that under the pretty melodies all is not well. Could you describe Aja any better than that? The only trouble with this theory is that Wilco sounds nothing like Steely Dan; otherwise it's the best analogy I've ever concocted. From the band that recorded the best Eagles song never written (Jesus, etc) it's no surprise that the dominant stylistic influence is the California rock of 70's AM radio. Not sure how this album sounds to younger folks but to me it brings up memories of Sunday drives in the summer, sitting in the backseat, staring out the rolled-down window, and listening to a tinny, crackly Doctor My Eyes blending with the wind.
Even if you weren't alive then to hear the death knell of AM radio, Either Way will put you there. The alternating D to E minor progression on a finger picked electric guitar right off of Nico's Chelsea Girl is a balm for the soul and the way the chorus rolls into the guitar solo is almost religious in its grace. Clouds part, the sky splits open, the sun bursts forth with transcendent light revealing the interconnectedness of all things, etc. Not a bad start. Tweedy follows it up with another sublime moment on You Are My Face, as he cuts off the ninth line of the verse with "in the dirt, and the dust", sung with a hint of resignation. It's moments like these that set Wilco apart from 1000 other decent bands that can't get on the radio. But from there the contour of the album starts to reveal itself, and once it's over it's clear that Sky Blue Sky is like a comfortable old mattress: solid on the edges but sagging noticeably in the middle. There aren't any outright clunkers here and the fantastic guitar playing elevates nearly every song, but Tweedy occasionally crosses from laid back to simply laid out on songs like Shake It Off and Please Be Patient With Me. He is still reclining as they move into Leave Me (Like You Found Me), but once again the guitar licks, floating ghostly above the piano, save the song. From here on out things pick up and the band starts to rock hard on Walken, and Tweedy is leading the chorus around the campfire for What Light. This feeds into the devastating On and On and On, which showcases Tweedy's ability to extract melody from the most discordant of elements. The entrance of the full band in the song's final minute sounds natural and unforced, fulfilling the hope of the lyric...almost. In the final seconds the bottom drops out and Tweedy is left alone with the piano, and the solace we thought we held in our hands is called into question. It would not be hyperbole to call this a masterstroke. And like the Beatles ending Abbey Road with Her Majesty, Wilco chooses to go out on a happy note with the rousing Let's Not Get Carried Away, in which the band squeegees the usual rock clichÃ©s (stops and starts, primal screams) for all they're worth. Forget the cynical lyric, this is celebratory music.
Wilco has come up with 50% of a classic album and 50% of a merely decent one. Buy it for the moments you simply won't hear anywhere else.5 June, 2007 - 15:46 — Alan Shulman