Wilco (The Album) review

Wilco (The Album) by Wilco (the band) opens with “Wilco (The Song),” a tongue-in-cheek ode to the ability of music to save lives. “Are times getting tough?” frontman Jeff Tweedy asks, before offering “a sonic shoulder for you to cry on,” and reassuring that “Wilco will love you, baby.” For an artist who has never gone out of his way to comfort fans, even going so far as to inflict the aural equivalent of his persistent migraines on fans on 2004’s A Ghost is Born, it’s a pretty big turnaround.

Then again, the Wilco of Wilco (The Album) isn’t the Wilco of five years ago. As 2007’s Sky Blue Sky made clear, Tweedy and company are shaving off the rough edges of their sound. After the experiments of Ghost and 2001’s instant-classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it seems that Tweedy is looking to solidify the Wilco sound.

Even for fans who prefer Ghost’s abstractions to the sprawling pop of 1999’s Summerteeth, this return to straightforwardness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Wilco (The Song)” is as satisfying as any of the band’s pop songs to date and murder ballad “Bull Black Nova” marries the band’s krautrock dalliances with grim imagery to powerful effect. If the entire album managed to synthesize the band’s output the way those tracks do, it’d be a masterpiece.

Other tracks feel significantly less essential, though. “You Never Know” is catchy enough with its driving pulse and refrain of “I don’t care anymore,” but its “kids-these-days” message seems trite compared to Tweedy’s usual impressionistic lyrics. “Solitaire” recalls John Lennon’s sadder moments with its double-tracked vocals and deep longing, but it doesn’t deliver the same gut-punch as, say, Summerteeth’s “How to Fight Loneliness.” And the lack of Tweedy’s meandering, near-tuneless fuzz guitar solos, which arguably provided Ghost’s emotional core, is sure to disappoint longtime fans.

As an attempt to merge Wilco’s post-millennial experimentation with its alt-country roots, Wilco (The Album) is a success, adding welcome texture to the band’s Americana rock. As a new direction for Wilco the band, though, it’s not going to win back fans who saw Sky Blue Sky as a regression. Wilco may love us, but the band was more interesting when it didn’t try to prove it.

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