Music Reviews
Wilco (The Album)

Wilco Wilco (The Album)

(Nonesuch) Rating - 6/10

(The Album) is Wilco's seventh studio LP in a glittering fifteen year career. To celebrate its release, we asked a handful of No Ripcord scribes to contribute reviews of the record. The average score shown above may be subject to change as more reviews are added.

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Tom Whalen:

At the record store where I work the buzz over the new Wilco record, though not nearly as deafening as that which trailed some of the big ticket indie joints this year, has been substantial and all together frustrating. At this point it’s been a month and change since (the Album) leaked and I’ve long since moved on, recognizing that this record is an indication that one (or both) of the following things has happened: Wilco has stopped making music that will excite me and/or Jeff Tweedy has lost his songwriting spark. It’s unclear, at this point, whether this is a momentary lapse or a sign of a larger decline (I really liked Sky Blue Sky, by the way, and no, I did not see this coming). Either way, I’ve got to put on a smile and pretend that I kind of like Wilco (the Album) because, you know, I’m a retail hack with no sense of integrity.

Anyway, I do kind of like the record. The first four tracks are pretty sweet. You hear Wilco (the song) on Colbert last year? Yeah, that tracks pretty rockin’. Nels sounds like he’s gonna bust that lick open and even though he doesn’t really (ever... on the whole record...), I think its quite tasty as is. Put it this way: I would dip some warm naan in that. No doubt. One Wing and Bull Black Nova are total highlights, which is to say that after they finish playing the record gets very underwhelming very quickly. Yeah, you’ve heard One Wing already. The live version. I know, it sounded like they were dipping back to A Ghost is Born turf. It’s a total bluff. Bummer. Bull Black is that krauty tune you hear about in all of the polite reviews. Right, the reviews that said this was a return to the more experimental inclinations of the group’s peak recordings. It’s a total bluff. Bummer.

The rest of the record? Um. Populist humdrum. Public domain stomp. Dreary-ass pud-pinching ballads. Nels and Glenn Kotche tied up in the back of the van, impostors collecting their checks and phoning in their fills. A lot of songs that remind you of those tracks off the last album that you usually skipped. Fucking Sonny Feeling. Perfunctory atmospheric segments relegated to half minute codas. Numerous references to believing in God and being in love. A duet with Feist that is just about as snoozed-out as it sounds on paper. The rhyming of "sad," "bad," and "glad".

Um. Actually… were you into the last record? You’ll like this one, I bet. Would you like a bag? (4)

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Jaclyn Elgeness:

Before Wilco wanted to break your heart, but now they will love you, and will fight and die for you. Wilco (The Album) wants to love you (as does the instantly likeable though ultimately forgettable title song) and Wilco tries very hard to make sure this album will love as many people as possible, from long-time fans to casual listeners who might remember having picked up Sky Blue Sky at Wal-Mart once. So, Wilco (The Album) is the most thoroughly listenable Wilco album to date, but that doesn’t necessarily make it their best, as they’ve all been quick to proclaim to the press. The boldness of a self-titled album not as their first release but seventh, implies a compilation or amalgamation of what the band (or maybe just Jeff Tweedy) has learned. And that is exactly what we have here. It’s like one of those little boxes of chocolate, and there are fewer in there than you would like rattling around, but absolutely none of them are full of stale coconut. It’s the Wilco sampler.

I would pick my way through other Wilco albums, even my personal favourite, A Ghost is Born, which obviously had its unlistenable experimental portions. Even if that static in Less Than You Think is supposed to represent the chaos of the universe or even Tweedy's migraines, I'm not going to listen to the whole thing. While Wilco may not reach the peaks here of She’s a Jar, At Least that’s What You Said, or I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, they often come pretty close and reconfigure familiar sounds and arrangements without sounding at all exhausted of new ideas. It feels scarily like a capstone, however. Where do you go after Wilco (The Band) gives you Wilco (The Song) on Wilco (The Album)?

They will succeed in pleasing long-time fans and casual listeners while pretending they don’t realize that that’s exactly what they’re doing. While it may be a natural evolution, as this is only the band’s second album without drastically changing the line-up, it also feels reactionary. A Ghost is Born won Grammies, but wasn’t received as well by critics as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth. Sky Blue Sky was a commercial success, but seen as a bit of a yawnfest by hardened fans used to more experimentation and dazzling studio overdubbing. So, here is their delicately crafted crowd pleaser, claiming a middle ground that does indeed please, and only occasionally feeling limited by this awareness. One Wing just begins to melt into an incredible guitar solo before stopping rather abruptly. Horns come in only at the very end of Everlasting Everything, and it made me realize that I wish there had been more horns used throughout the album. Tweedy’s duet with Feist on You and I is beautiful in theory, but her voice is too quiet here to combat with his and ends up feeling negligible. He could have handled this song alone.

Highlights include the neurotically bouncy and somehow joyous ride through the mind of a murderer in Bull Black Nova and the harpsichord and theremin used to tell the tale of down and out boxer in Deeper Down. You usually can’t go wrong by adding a theremin. Solitaire calls to mind Badly Drawn Boy’s delicate melodies. The chugging, hoe-down inducing Sonny Feeling gave me the same response that Bright Eyes’ Four Winds did: “Wait a minute, I normally hate country music.” But I don’t hate either of those songs. I love them. I’ll Fight is also a major highlight, feeling like a lost hit from Summerteeth to rival She’s a Jar. It’s easy to find bits and pieces of older albums here, which is likely why the band has expressed such affection for this release. It’s clear that the lyrics here have shifted more toward optimism, (you know, other than that murder one) and even seems to ridicule melodrama, as in Sonny Feeling: “remember to show gratitude / the darkest night is nothing new.” The enchanting closer, Everlasting Everything, opens with an almost laughable “Everything alive must die,” but ends up touting the joy and endurance of everlasting love, in mercifully less clichéd terms. Wilco, and probably most especially Jeff Tweedy, have been seeking peace and balance in life and in this album, offering us a mild yet joyous experience. It's good to see that sobriety hasn't detracted at all from Tweedy's musical talent, and that he still earns the title that had once been given to him by an adoring fan on Wikipedia before it was taken down: the coolest man alive. (8) 

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Nick Fenn:

I’ll join in on the chorus of comments on internet reviews of this album decrying Sky Blue Sky’s lack of critical appreciation. Still, it wasn’t that good, either, and the early information on this new album didn’t suggest it was going to be an improvement. The title and cover are pretty stupid, and the idea of a Feist-Tweedy duet filled me with dread. Luckily for Wilco fans, this effort is a lot more consistent than its predecessor. It’s also, for better or worse, not particularly ambitious. Sure, there are some nice melodies here, like the soft Country Disappeared, or, dare I say it, the aforementioned duet on You and I. There are even some songs that draw heavily from the same pool of inspiration as Summerteeth. You Never Know, and Sonny Feeling particularly excel on this front. The major problem is that this doesn’t sound like a band that’s pushing itself any more, or at least not making the same sort of pushes that lead to the brilliant sucker-punch of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the vastly underrated A Ghost Is Born. About 50% of the lyrics seem to be about how much better and happier you’d be with someone to love, and perhaps that’s what 50% of Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics have been about anyway, but there’s none of the pathos that he managed with his previous Dadaist flirtations. That said, there’s a lot to like here: some great melodies, tight production, and real consistency from start to finish, and, to be fair, this is a band who have really earned the right to simply make good, listenable albums that will sound fantastic live. I’m of the mindset that Wilco will probably never make a bad album and Wilco (The Album) goes no way to changing that. (7)

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Neil Insh:

In the process of recording and playing music, I tend to be of the opinion there are two predominant types of modus operandī, albeit in very general terms. The first category is that of a "creative" approach to musicianship – those who do not necessarily have formal skills as such, but compensate with a more visceral response that often produces unusually gratifying results. The second is that of the "accomplished musician" - a niche filled primarily by distinguished performers of their chosen instrument(s) that can switch between styles with ease, versatile and technically gifted. Of course, these two categories undoubtedly combine, and this convergence of styles can produce incredible results.

Wilco are a band who fit into both these categories. Sadly, they have not often inhabited both these groupings at one time, instead at varying instances throughout their seven-album career. Ever present core members Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt have guided themselves through alt-country beginnings (A.M.) through triumphant Americana (Being There) and arriving crucially with Summerteeth at the end of the last decade, with a revolving cast of stylistic contributors throughout these three records. 

The "creative" high point arguably ranged between Summerteeth in 1999, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 and A Ghost is Born in 2004 (encompassing the explorative journal "The Wilco Book" and accompanying CD). This was a traditional Americana outfit pushing themselves to the physical limit of their imaginations; with each album they seemed to be progressing toward perfection of songwriting, atmosphere and experimentation. If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the climax; the consummation of all of their troubles and efforts, A Ghost is Born was the fallout. Subtle, paced and cathartic, it was the natural successor to Yankee.

Wilco's last effort Sky Blue Sky showed freedom of expression; the arrival of talents such as Nels Cline and Pat Sansone seemed to complete their lustrative resurrection, with knowledge that as an established full band their sound was boundless.

However, their current record showcases that same band falling into a mould: a resignation. Instead of pushing their current possibilities, they have limited them. Wilco (The Album) is not only unimaginatively titled – the content mirrors this languorous appellation. If there's some frivolousness at play here (the cover, as well as the title), I'm just not getting it. It almost feels like a band who are so comfortable with themselves they are happy to do only what they can be bothered, without much exertion (they've already done their experimental stage – now for the easy stuff). 

Repeated listens are not fruitful, as there is nothing to learn from the songs, musically or lyrically. What some may recognize as a 'nod' to their predecessors, merely comes across as lackadaisical plagiarism, such as the choral facsimile of You Never Know to George Harrison's My Sweet Lord.  

The instrumentation of this album is so underwhelming that even Nels Cline's guitar parts seem jaded and repetitive. He and Tweedy are still following the Verlaine/Neil Young mould developed on Ghost and Sky Blue Sky and however impressive their guitar work is technically, it has reached a creative dead end.

There are no musical peaks, nor valleys: just one constant plateau of slowly undulating land with very little scenery. Black Bull Nova is the most interesting song on (The Album) – a brooding piano and guitar counterpoint supplemented by a constant bassline. However, the predominant sound of the record is of tremulous fingers bending guitar strings, signifying how much soloing has become commonplace, even habitual. A guest appearance from Feist cannot save You and I, which is only a failure to my ears as I know what Wilco are capable of. 

Perhaps, sad to say, the most passionate modern music we are privileged to hear is actualized amid turmoil. Yankee Hotel was an inspirational expressive wonder, conceived during unsettled band politics and much-publicized drug addictions. The sprawling peregrinations of that era now seem stale – hard to believe that drummer Glenn Kotche used car hubcaps during those sessions as percussion.

The production is dry as a bone from start to finish, producing an effect akin to claustrophobia, over intimacy. Spirit and inventiveness seem to have been replaced by perfection of instrument, or else panders to convention. It pains me to dismiss this record so unequivocally, however, ultimately one can't help but feel that another revivification may be all that can save Wilco...the band. (5) 

. . . 

David Coleman: 

I’ll preface this review by admitting that 2009 has been my Wilco year. I’ve always loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but A Ghost Is Born and Summerteeth had taken a little longer to make a significant mark on my listening habits; as of this year, they’ve become firm favourites, mounting a serious challenge to YHF, which in my humble opinion remains the band’s masterpiece. 

By anyone’s standards, this holy trinity of albums is a remarkable achievement. The songwriting is top notch, but it is the way in which the band reinvents itself from one record to the next that continues to amaze me with each new listen. Each release was the sound of a talented band pushing against the frontier of its imagination, and even 2007’s Sky Blue Sky represented a bold stylistic shift (its critics labelled it ‘dad rock’... they were wrong). 

Wilco (The Album) is not a great leap forward for Wilco; it is the first time the band has consolidated its position in a magnificent fifteen year career. The sooner you can accept this fact, the sooner you can start enjoying (The Album). 

Wilco (The Song) provides a fairly straightforward introduction, but Deeper Down and One Wing immediately raise the bar to a level approaching that of Sky Blue Sky’s stronger compositions. The stellar Black Bull Nova sounds like a distant cousin of A Ghost Is Born’s krautrock odyssey Spiders (Kidsmoke) and it’s an early highlight; the ever so slightly saccharine Feist duet You and I is much better than a lot of this album’s detractors are suggesting. 

Country Disappeared and Solitaire are pretty enough, but everything sounds a little too comfortable; the talent of players like Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen is evident throughout Wilco (The Album), but passion seems to have been overlooked in the quest for perfection on these two songs in particular. I’ll Fight is a little better, but the only real standout on side B is the memorable finale Everlasting Everything. 

After a decade and a half of self-discovery, I think that Jeff Tweedy and co. have earned the right to kick back and enjoy themselves a little. Wilco (The Album) is a celebration of the style the band has cultivated on its last two outings and in my book that makes for an enjoyable listening experience. I sincerely doubt that Wilco will ever top Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but if the band can assemble an album of this quality every three years or so that’ll be more than enough to keep me coming back for more. (7) 

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