in Retrospecticus

Retrospecticus: Wilco

I wasn’t really sure whether it’d be worth it to do this retrospecticus or not, but the fact of the matter is I’ve heard all of Wilco’s albums, so I figured I’d give it shot.  Much like the new Beastie Boys album, I’m not really that excited about Wilco’s new album since, let’s be honest, these guys hit their peak a while ago.  Still, they managed to record one of my favorite albums of the last twenty years, so I figure they deserve it.

A.M. (1995)

I guess Wilco basically evolved out of the band Uncle Tupelo, whom I really know nothing about.  Anyway, most of the members of Wilco had been a part of Uncle Tupelo, and A.M. was kind of seen as sort of a continuation of the alt-country sound of this former band.

A.M. kind of tends to get a bad wrap, since it really doesn’t show much of the potential for artistic growth that you see on all of the subsequent Wilco releases.  Still, I think you see plenty of promise in Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, which has always been at the backbone of Wilco, despite all the different band members that have come and gone throughout the years.  A.M. is pleasant enough, but none of the songs really stand out as being anything more than decent country-infused Stones-esque rock.

Favorite Tracks: “I Must Be High”, “Box Full Of Letters”, “I Thought I Held You”

Being There (1996)

Now here’s where this band really started to get interesting.  Like any double album, it’s certainly not perfect, but the sprawling quality of Being There shows the band really starting to hit their stride.  Much of it I think had to do with Tweedy’s growing confidence as a songwriter, but another part of the equation would have to do with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who joined the band on this album.

There really is a disparate nature of the songwriting here, as the upbeat numbers on the album are pretty damn upbeat, as songs like “I Got You (At the End of The Century)” and “Outta Sight (Outta Mind)” have an almost sing-a-long quality to them.  But on the other hand, the slower songs are increasingly dark and introspective.  All the while, you also see the band looking towards new kinds of sonic textures to go along with their signature Americana-infused aesthetic.

Favorite Tracks: “Outta Sight (Outta Mind)”, “Red-Eyed And Blue”, “Was I In Your Dreams”

Summerteeth (1999)

Pretty much from that first riff you can tell that Wilco aren’t really doing that same old alt-country stuff that they were doing on their first two album.  This is an album that uses that classic rock mentality, but infuses it with an interest in sonic noodling as well as a pallette for bigger and bolder sounds.  On top of that, you’ve got the tuneful Tweedy and the more experimental Bennett really coming together as a true songwriting team to be reckoned with.

It’s a shame that Summerteeth kind of has to live in the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, since it really shares some of the best qualities of that album, all while featuring some of Wilco’s most affecting songs.  Though it’s not a terribly long album, it still has that sprawling quality that was seen on Being There, as the songs vary from sweepingly orchestral (“A Shot In The Arm”) to infectiously rockin’ (“I’m Always In Love”).  Also, you get some of Tweedy’s darkest lyrical moments, such as “Via Chicago”, which begins with the memorable line “I dreamed of killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”.  But most of all you see a small-time band knocking on ambition’s door, with no intent of holding back.

Favorite Tracks: “I Can’t Stand It”, “A Shot In The Arm”, “ELT”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

There aren’t many albums from the last decade that I would give five stars to, but I really have no problem admitting that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is pretty much a masterpiece.  From start to finish there really isn’t a bad track, and some of this stems from Tweedy and Bennett’s masterful songwriting, while some of it also stems from their ability to infuse the songs with a playful unconventionality.  Either way, I think the clashing of Tweedy and Bennett’s talent as well as personalities is what drives the album, and you can see that by this time the two weren’t very fond of each other in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

At the time of the album’s release, much was made of the fact that Wilco’s record label refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the band was forced to release it independently on the internet.  But as time has gone by, the album’s quality really speaks for itself despite how much of an impact it had on the way albums would be released in the coming years.  Yet the weird thing about YHF for me is how muted of a musical impact it’s had since being released.  I like to think that most “five star” albums were ones that really changed the direction of music and influenced a lot of other artists, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t really like that.  It really just stands as the work of a band reaching for something bold and ambitious, and pulling it off brilliantly.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Favorite Tracks: “Jesus, Etc.”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Pot Kettle Black”

A Ghost Is Born (2005)

As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of what Jay Bennett brought to Wilco, so I’m not nearly as huge of a fan of the albums Wilco released without the late Mr. Bennett.  A Ghost Is Born was the first album without Bennett, and I think it’s pretty uneven in comparison to an album as bizarely cohesive as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In place of Jay Bennett’s lush atmospheric noodling, you had the addition of guitarist Nels Cline, whose guitar work often leads the band towards more jam-like territory.  It’s a little surprising how well this works on a song like the ten-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, but at other times the guitar interludes seem just kind of tiring.  There are also still some nice piano ballads featured throughout the album, like “Hell Is Chrome” or “Hummingbird” while there are certainly some experimental moments like “Less Than You Think” that are just frustrating, as the song last 15 minutes, 12 of which are basically just white noise.  So you get the idea that Wilco wasn’t really sure where exactly to take the sound they had laid down in their last few albums, and making a slightly difficult album was the path they chose.

Favorite Tracks: “Spiders (Kidsmake)”, “Hummingbird”, “Handshake Drugs”

Sky Blue Sky (2007)

Here’s where Wilco started to get a bit more mellow, not that they haven’t always maintained a pretty unassuming quality to their music.  But on Sky Blue Sky, you really don’t get the sense that the band is trying to use the studio in a really innovative way anymore.  And that’s OK, since Sky Blue Sky relies more on a “live band” mentality, with the songs focusing more on the dynamic that exists between the band as they bash out these songs.

Again, you’ve got Tweedy’s strong songwriting at the backbone of the band, while Nels Cline seems to find a way of making his guitar a little more suited to the band’s softer side, as he displays on the sprawling guitar solo of “Impossible Germany”.  I’m sure there are some people that detest the acrobatic nature of Cline’s guitar playing since it is more showy than your average indie rock guitar playing.  But I think for the most part it adds a nice texture when some of these songs could come off as “just another laid back Wilco song”.

Favorite Tracks: “Either Way”, “Impossible Germany”, “Shake It Off”

Wilco (The Album) (2009)

Though I have no problem admitting that there isn’t really anything groundbreaking about Wilco (The Album), I still have kind of a soft spot for it.  Maybe it’s because it was the first Wilco album I got into after hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but at the same time I think it is in a way “a return to form”, as much as I detest that phrase.

I guess the aspect I like about this album is that for the first time in a while it sounds like these guys are genuinely having fun.  Songs like the album’s title(ish) track or “You Never Know” return the band to the Being There or Summerteeth days, when the band would rip into some country-infused rock boogie.  Then of course you’ve got some nice ballads that show Jeff Tweedy’s always reliable introspective side, including the Feist duet “You And I”.  Most of all, Wilco (The Album) sounds like a veteran band getting comfortable with themselves and their place in the world of rock music.  I guess we’ll see if they keep doing this same kind of thing on The Whole Love.

Favorite Tracks: “Wilco (The Song)”, “You And I”, “I’ll Fight”


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