Most bands’ self-titled efforts throw the gauntlet down, serving notice they’ve finally found the sound they’ve been looking for (either that, or name-brand groups like Zeppelin—and later, parodically, Weezer—get a bit too complacent about everyone knowing precisely who they are and how to tell each album apart). That qualifying parenthetical (The Album) is typical, then, of the push-pull between Jeff Tweedy’s insecurities about himself as a musician/songwriter and Wilco’s hard-to-ignore status as a beloved concert act with a large fanbase which worships Tweedy. It’s a declaration of Major Rock Band Hubris, but it isn’t! As if that wasn’t enough self-aggrandizing self-deprecation, there’s the totally hilarious “Wilco (the Song).” It’s expert, textbook unimaginative rollicking ’70s stuff, complete with a plodding, ridiculously simplistic keyboard riff that’s just the same three notes repeated in a downward 5-4-1 progression.
The lack of stretching is deliberate; this is Wilco’s purposefully hemmed-in self-definition, doing all the simple stuff their critics don’t like and staking those boundaries as their turf. It’s not as if Tweedy doesn’t know Wilco’s become totally uncool these last few years: “I’m probably the only person that wanted to be a rock critic and failed at it and started a band” he told The New York Times a few years ago before going on to rhapsodize about Battles and Grizzly Bear. The man has had Deerhoof and The Fiery Furnaces open for Wilco (and when I saw the latter opening at Radio City Music Hall years ago, it was clear the Furnaces had the crowd flummoxed; “Rock-’n’-roll,” some lost 40something soul chanted, which is the wrong answer). Tweedy’s aware of spazzy music that pushes things forward; he just has no interest in doing it himself. The furor over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, then and now, seems to be totally missing the point; for all the frills at the corners, it wasn’t particularly “experimental,” and the fact that Wilco was adopted as a banner standard by critics seems more of a show of ideological solidarity with stuff marginalized by major labels than a genuine response to an admittedly excellent album. That so many people have since complained that Wilco has morphed into something much blander is missing the point; they were always pretty bland, just with a slightly different attack for each album.
So the chorus of “Wilco (the Song)” is a double-edged sword: “Wilco will love you baby” is a promise requiring no reciprocation. If you want to come around on Sky Blue Sky, they’ll be there, patiently waiting. If you think it’s a bland piece of shit, that’s cool too; the Wilco faithful are unshakable, wearing the dad-rock smear like a badge of honor, none more proudly than the band itself. All Tweedy’s offering is a “sonic shoulder for you to cry” on; he’s disowning any grander ambitions.
The first six tracks are as great as anything Wilco’s ever done; unfortunately, it’s an 11-track album. “Deeper Down” goes a lot of places without building to a cumulative impact, but it’s a curious, tentative song whose opening gets stuck in my head anyway. “One Wing” has a ripping guitar solo in the middle in E major; the rest is all minor-key build from tentative strumming to all-out break-up chorus. You can mentally add the cowbell yourself; it’s so clearly not there it’s almost like a negative presence stripped away. The metaphor’s simple enough (“One wing will never ever fly dear”), and it’s the thematically appropriate prelude to the album’s three-track mini-masterpiece run, which starts with a dysfunctional relationship, switches to a healthier one, then moves to a place of a-/anti- sexual calm.
First up: “Bull Black Nova,” one of the simplest lyrics Tweedy’s ever written (which is good, because sometimes his aspirations to poetry fall flat on their face). “It’s on my hair, it’s on my clothes” is clarified, one verse later, the “it” being “blood on the sofa…blood in the trunk.” This is a man who’s killed his girlfriend, and—aside from the reveal of the third verse confirming the darkest hints of the first—there is nothing hard to understand about this. It’s krautrockin’ like “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (as noted by damn near everyone), but it’s way less digressive and hence much less of a patience-tester. Tweedy will never be confused with Nick Cave vocally, but the music is intense enough to make up for whatever true danger he’s simply incapable of projecting, stacking terrifying guitar solo and insistent, tension-ratcheting piano octaves on top of Wilco’s default ’70s chug ’til there’s no place left to run and Tweedy screams he’s about to black out. This is easily Wilco’s darkest song, though “dark” is pretty much relative; they’re mostly just morose, generally speaking. There’s precedent: “Bull Black Nova” extrapolates “Via Chicago”’s opening admission “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me” and expands on it, and the same album (1999’s Summerteeth) also has “She’s A Jar,” with its closing shot, “She begs me not to hit her.” But those were Tweedy building on frustration from his marriage (with his wife’s grudging permission); on Wilco (The Album), Tweedy spends more time singing in character than at any point since possibly Being There. He was never exactly confessional, but it’s good to have him freed up for experiments like this.
“You And I” mostly speaks for itself; it’s a good joke to follow up “Bull Black Nova”’s murder with a relationship duet (with Feist!), though this is one bleakly adult, barely romantic partnering: “I don’t need to know that much about you, and you don’t need to know that much about me.” (Good advice, honestly.) And then there’s “You Never Know.” I have very mixed feelings about this song. To wit: the lyrics are beyond smug and preachy. “Come on children, you’re acting like children,” announces the super-wise, seen-it-all, world-weary Mr. Tweedy; “every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” But not Tweedy! Why? “I don’t care anymore,” he repeats over and over for the chorus, as if he’s suffered so long and hard that he’s achieved transcendent, elder guru status, attaining ultimate karma in this lifetime alone. My immediate reaction is that it’s the kind of smug bullshit you’d hear from an aging hippie and must be killed, and also that it’s a bit rich for a man who two albums ago was inflicting 10-minutes of drone on unprepared listeners to share the tenor of his migraines with us to now go around building himself up as past suffering and worth taking advice from. On the other hand: this song fucking rocks. There’s a cribbed guitar riff from “My Sweet Lord” and a hypnotic, most-’70s-ever verse that has organ drone and the kind of slinky, jazzy drum pattern people just don’t play anymore, because it screams instant 1974. Perversely, that’s what makes it refreshing, as annoying as I might find the real thing: the ability to seamlessly recreate a sound with impeccable musicianship for no real reason other than a personal fixation, something I automatically respond to probably a little more than I should. I prefer simulacra of sounds I don’t care about to the real thing.
The back half of the album is fine, though it’s basically retreads of their past work: “Solitaire” the generic ballad of loneliness, “Everlasting” the generic cathartic closer repudiating the last album’s conclusion of “Please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” Only “Sunny Feeling” sticks out, but it’s basically a breather for hardcore fans and probably unconvincing to everyone else. Still, the first half is spectacular. This is the most schizophrenic, least internally consistent album Wilco’s put out maybe, like, ever. The only thing holding it together? “Wilco” (the concept).