The Curious Case of Wilco

I’ve been listening to a lot of Wilco lately. Four months ago or so I didn’t have a single album. But so many of my friends praised them up and down that I had to give them another shot.

I tried once before, somewhere around 2002. That’s when everyone was talking about them. Their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album was a rallying cry, not only for the independent minded youth of the digital age, but the journalists who aim to represent them. It was a triumph of art over commerce. They were the band that stuck it to The MAN. Of course, that was all I heard about. Nobody seemed to mention the music. I hate that kind of media-generated buzz, so I had no interest in getting to know them.

But one day I was driving around Palo Alto with my girlfriend at the time. She was more curious than I was so she bought the album. OK, sure, let’s give it a shot. So she put the CD in the car stereo. Ninety seconds into it, I knew I hated it. Once I heard that sad-sack voice I thought God no, not another self-emasculaed, indie whiner please. Two minutes into it I couldn’t take it anymore. I begged her to turn it the hell off. My preconceptions were confirmed: Of course the critics loved them, I thought. These guys hate themselves. They fit perfectly into that drab, post-punk attitude where you have to sound like you don’t care. Critics love that shit. I can’t fucking stand it.

Fast-forward some five or six years into the future, to March 2008. I went with a group of friends to the Korean countryside for some fresh air and to climb a mountain. It had been raining the whole drive up and that night. When we woke up the next morning I opened the curtains and looked outside. The trees were dripping with last night’s rain, the hotel pavement was soaked. But it looked like the weather was going to break and we could climb that mountain.

And then someone put on some music. I heard this really nice, mellow guitar, and then the singer sang the first lines: “Maybe the sun will shine today. The clouds will blow away. Maybe I won’t feel so afraid…” Wait a minute, who’s this? Wilco. First song off their most recent album, Sky Blue Sky. I loved it. It was pretty, it was mellow, the singer was really singing, the mix was beautiful, and it was a great song. In short, it was everything my first experience was not.

And that’s Wilco. There’s a reason every website’s favorite adjective for them is “interesting.” As evidence of this, everyone I know who is a fan has a different preferred phase, a different favorite album. My friend in Pittsburgh thought nothing was ever quite the same after A.M. The bass player in my band prefers Being There. One of the guitarists in my band likes Summerteeth best. The other guitarist swears by A Ghost Is Born. His girlfriend digs Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I, to this day, still prefer Sky Blue Sky by a mile.

Before I dig into my praise of them, and of that album in particular, I gotta get something off my chest.

Wilco’s musical catalog is stocked full of what I find to be utter bullshit. This makes me want to hate them. First, my initial impressions of Yankee haven’t changed. I hate that album. It’s overproduced, and by that I mean it’s intentionally under-produced. I think Jeff Tweedy had a collection of decent songs and they decided that maybe they were a little too soft, a little too vulnerable, a little too… serious. So I think they got in the studio and intentionally decided to fuck them up to make them sound more hip and cool.

This was pretty much confirmed in the documentary about the making of the album — I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Even though I don’t like the record, I loved the documentary. It was really interesting to see them fret and stress and argue in the studio about what to do with these songs. And I think that worry carries over to the end result. It’s a record that doesn’t know what it is.

In that documentary, they interviewed David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine. Now, I really like David Fricke. He’s a smart guy who understands music and music history and the guy makes great observations about music and culture. But he lifted that album to a much higher pedestal than was necessary. He railed against the corporate robots who have no appreciation for art and said, basically, that the record company didn’t recognize that a work of genius had just been made.

What Fricke didn’t acknowledge was his own hypocrisy. He’s the product of his own power structure, and that is Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone has an ideology, and that is to speak to the ever-evolving youth culture. So long as he does that, RS continues to present an appearance of relevance. If it accomplishes that, it makes money for The Gap and BMW and Calvin Klein so that he and the rest of the editorial board can enjoy a fat salary. I have a real beef with Rolling Stone because they’re disingenuous and false. They present an impression of antiestablishment and individuality because that speaks to youth culture. Rolling Stone knows that the Sex Pistols and The Clash gave them their current identity, so everything has to be derivative of that mindset. That’s why every once in a while they’ll do a review of a Yes album just so they can slam it as “self-indulgence.”

So Rolling Stone to me are a bunch of bullshitters. But their influence, and MTV’s et al, is huge. Bands would never admit it, but the media — whether it’s magazines, websites, or cable TV shows — affect the music that’s being made today. If a band tries too hard, they’re self-indulgent, so they’re not cool. This is why you have the “indie” phenomenon. I don’t really know what that is actually, but when I hear “indie,” I think of mopey hipsters. I hear musical apathy. I hear a generation of musicians who have been force-fed the Rolling Stones of the world and their output is a reflection of that. So let’s all ridicule prog rock. Let’s all ridicule singer-songwriters. Let’s ridicule anything emotional, anything that tries to be expressive.

I think this is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And I also think it’s much of Wilco’s early career. Here are a couple other examples of this kind of attitude that bug me about them:
1. “The Lonely 1” from Being There. This is a nice song. But it’s too sensitive, so let’s indie it up a little. We’ll record a take where he fumbles the guitar a little bit at the beginning. Sing like you don’t give a shit; mumble your way through it rather than try to give the melody some flight, which it certainly has potential for. Oh, and at the end, talk about how you fucked it up. Look, if you fucked it up, do it again.
2. “Kingpin” also off of Being There. The drummer is intentionally dropping the time to make it sound, I don’t know, drunk? A little more stupid? A little less good? A little more… cool?

Sure, I’m being anal about all this. But when I listen to music, I don’t like to be manipulated. I believe that buried under all the bullshit are some really good songs that, because of the post-punk attitude, come out less than they could be. I guess it all comes down to intention. What are you intending to do? Do you really not care about your craft? If so why are you doing it and why are you subjecting me to it? If, on the other hand, you really do care, then what are you so afraid of? Compare this with something like Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, which actually is independent because he made it by himself in a tiny home studio. It’s real because the intention is genuine.

This brings me to what I think is the good in Wilco’s career. Jeff got rid of Jay Bennett, which needed to happen, the band stripped away all that crap, and they started to concentrate on making good music. A Ghost Is Born is fantastic. Every song – with the possible exception of “Spiders” – is bullshit-free. You can really hear it in songs like “Muzzle of Bees” and “Hummingbird.” Wow, we’re actually getting a song! All this stuff is well-written, well-recorded, played with some passion, and sang with a little more courage. It also has the right kind of experimentation – musical experimentation. After this, we have Kicking Television, maybe one of the best live albums ever made. All the songs have new life. I can’t believe how phenomenal “Ashes of American Flags” is. It was completely transformed from droll to energetic and profound, the way the song should have always been.

And then we get Sky Blue Sky. I don’t know how much of that album is attributed to Nels Cline joining the band. But it feels like Wilco’s whole career was leading up to this moment. Every song is a gem, the sequencing is perfect, and it sounds gorgeous. There’s so much great melody throughout that record, with piano, organ, and layers of guitars intertwining with each other so beautifully. Jeff sings his ass off and isn’t afraid of his lyrics anymore. This album has, in fact, become a minor obsession of mine. I don’t want to over-aggrandize it, but when I listen to that, I imagine what might have happened if the Beatles had gotten together in the mid-70s to make one last album — and if John wrote the bulk of the material. That’s what it sounds like to me. It’s that good. And it bears no resemblance to The Clash whatsoever.

And there you have it, my overly long critique of the “interesting” and “curious” band that is Wilco.

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