Until now, each new Wilco album has been its own singular snowflake: different members, different circumstances, united only by the familiar twang of Jeff Tweedy’s voice and a few other signature touches. That changes with Wilco (The album), the band’s first work with an unmodified lineup, though many fans may be loathe to consider that its this lineup, which produced the understated murmur of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, that was somewhat unjustly lambasted for its mediocre dad-rock inclinations. Unfortunately, if that album was the sound of a band settling into middle age, then Wilco is the sound of them settling a little further, amping up the studio sheen and a weird sense of friendly humor.
If the endless reconfiguration of personnel represented Tweedy’s restless creativity, then does this fixed lineup, with its suggestions of comfort and small-scale rapport, signal its end? It’s a reckless conclusion, but one that’s liable to be reached here. It doesn’t help that Wilco is such a complacent album, so easily redolent of sounds and textures the band has called up in the past. An appearance by Feist, who shows up for a wanly delivered guest duet on “You and I,” doesn’t help either; it’s a snug pairing that seems readymade for the CD rack at Starbucks.
Yet there’s a kernel of warm, shlocky goodwill to these songs that makes it difficult to harbor any animosity toward them. The opening track, “Wilco (The Song),” is a goofy anthem that, forgetting its self-aware ridiculousness, might be considered the equivalent of the Backstreet Boys’s “Larger Than Life.” “Start up your stereo,” Tweedy beckons, “Put on your headphones/Before you explode/Wilco will love you, baby.”
If this first song aims to brush off naysayers by disarming them with a dose of warm, knowing cheese, “Bull Black Nova” is here to remind us that the band still has an edge. Hinging on a repeatedly plunking, atonal keyboard note, it dips into grisly “Blood in the sink/Blood on the sofa” murder lyrics before swirling up into a wild drone, complete with pained shouts and howling guitar. It’s a good act, but surrounded by doofy dad fodder like “I’ll Fight,” with its karaoke bass line and temperate organ swells, is not an especially convincing one.