Sounding from its opening notes like an album that’s at least 30 years old, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky makes a most unexpected first impression, one that has already led to a great deal of pre-release hemming-and-hawing over what frontman Jeff Tweedy was trying to accomplish with the band’s sixth studio effort. A decisive about-face from the inspired, if often chilly, experimentation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky is an album of the very openness implied by its title, the clean, unadorned production giving every song ample room to breathe and stretch. Beyond shaking off the always ill-fitting “American Radiohead” tags that the band had acquired, what this accomplishes for Tweedy and the current incarnation of Wilco (joined this time out by touring guitarist Nels Cline, whose dueling guitar riffs with Tweedy provide some of the album’s most invigorating moments) is that it foregrounds their superior songcraft. Tweedy’s lyrics, in particular, have rarely been as direct or as soulful in his post-Uncle Tupelo career as they are here, capturing the queasy middle-ground between a lingering, pervasive melancholy (as on “Hate It Here,” with its Beatles-esque metrical shifts) and cautious optimism (on the title track, he muses, “I survived, that’s good enough for now,” while on opener “Either Way,” he tries not to get too excited by the prospects of “Maybe the sun will shine today/Maybe the clouds will roll away/Maybe I won’t be so afraid/I will understand everything has its plan”). The songs’ arrangements are uniformly well-matched, then, in that they don’t struggle against the straightforwardness of the lyrics. Instead, the instrumental passages (which remind that plenty of bands can invoke references as diverse as CSN&Y, Thin Lizzy, Jackson Browne, and Television, but precious few can do so with Wilco’s degree of technical skill or masterful recombinant-pop sensibility) seem to evolve naturally from the songs’ narratives: spectacular as they often are, they don’t draw undue attention to themselves. Again, most everything about Sky Blue Sky is unassuming, but its excellence surfaces with repeated listens. Though it may not fit comfortably alongside any other albums in Wilco’s catalogue, Sky Blue Sky is further confirmation that, even at their most retro, they’re among contemporary pop music’s most vital acts.
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