Wilco will always hold a special place in everyone’s heart. At the beginning of the last decade, they were as influential a band as you were going to find. Unlike certain other bands, they never veered into the type of experimental music that alienated portions of their fan base. They always moved forward and seemed to bring us along with them. 2002’s surreal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will forever stand as one of the finest albums I have ever heard. The irony of crafting your masterpiece so early into your career is that everything to follow will inevitably seem like a disappointment. That has been the bane of Wilco for the past decade now; not only trying to get their music back to the quality of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but just to that same attitude and experience. To put it simply; they need to sound more like Wilco. Well, trust me when I say that on the recently released The Whole Love, you’ll get about all the fucking Wilco you can handle. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely the case.
My favorite aspect of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (last comparison, I promise) was how all of the songs were tied together by a feeling of American experience. In no way was it a concept album, but it always struck me (both lyrically and musically) as so utterly American. When I listen to The Whole Love, I have no idea what ties any of these songs together. Hell, I have a hard time even predicting what note or instrument is going to appear next. The album quite simply lives and dies on its unpredictability, whether it be with consecutive tracks that seem to contradict one another, instruments that seem to have no business being in a song, or lyrics that make you shake your head and read them to believe them. Sometimes it works and gives you a feeling of unconventional artistry while other times it just throws you out of the listening experience.
Look no further than the opening seven minute ballad, “The Art of Almost,” to see exactly what I’m talking about. After starting with a minute of garbled and borderline electronic drum beats, it slows into a trippy, borderline metallic soft string melody before stopping and proceeding with a final two minutes that I’m just not really sure how to describe (a shredding electric guitar drains out an almost honky tonk rock n’ roll guitar before deteriorating into an unscripted rock out). The song is so all over the place it’s virtually impossible to decide if you like it or not. You can only process it and move on. You would naturally assume that they would maintain the high intensity of their opener with a biting follow up. Instead, we get a slowed down soft string piece (with a distorted bass and bizarrely happy organ chiming in the background) in “I Might.” The album is full of twists and turns like that.
Towards the end of the album, you get a song like “Capitol City,” which really sounds like it should be played over a montage in Toy Story. That’s really not meant to be a knock on Randy Newman or, well, children, but it’s the best way I can iterate the gentle tone of the song (it flirts with circus music; there is definitely a clarinet and a xylophone, and maybe even a calliope, but I can’t confirm). It also happens to feature the album’s strangest refrain; “I wish you were here, but yet I wish I was there.” This flows right into a series of in your face power chords and the ultra souped up “Standing,” which defies its predecessor with beach rock organs, ultra electric guitars and some community clapping. The album never allows you to settle in to anything.
It’s not just the music, as the lyrics can be every bit as inconsistent. In a song like “Dawned on Me,” they really fall back on some old cliches like “young and old,” “lost and found” and even “east and west.” It would seem juvenile or even lazy if, not two tracks earlier, were they referencing the Magna Carta.
The album weaves its way through every unexpected stop along the way to produce a pretty enjoyable product. It concludes with the much-talked-about twelve minute epic, “One Sunday Morning.” I appreciate the effort but it seems to be twelve minutes just for the sake of being twelve minutes. Whether you like the end product or not (and how you could possibly come to a final conclusion is beyond me), you have to be satisfied with their advantageous bravado this time around. Either way, they finally took the first step out of the ominous shadow cast by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (last time).