October 3, 2011

Test Spins: Wilco, The Whole Love

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In 1984, the recently broken up R.E.M. released Reckoning. Critically acclaimed, it was one of the first alternative rock albums that spawned a large amount of similar artists. Twenty seven years later, alternative rock is associated with forgettable, commercially appealing songs on the Adult Top 40. Fortunately, there are many exceptions, and Wilco is one of them. While recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they were under pressure from Warner Brothers management to make the album more commercially appealing. Wilco responded by buying back their studio tapes and leaving the label altogether. Releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on a more welcoming label, the album was a critical success and remains their best selling album to date. What paid off was their desire to maintain their integrity and their willingness to accept risk. Wilco’s latest album, The Whole Love, continues this trend by finding a balance between their identity and their risk-taking, which makes the album one of their most appealing to date.

From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to A Ghost is Born, Wilco has never been afraid to take risks with their sound, and album opener “Art of Almost” is no exception. With its edgy beat and bass line, the song builds up into a chaotic soundscape of strings before settling down to feature frontman Jeff Tweedy’s voice. Easily their most ambitious song, “Art of Almost” features a gritty guitar solo that, despite the radical shift, anchors the listener with familiar Wilco themes like loneliness, regret and love. In the chaos of the instrumentals, Tweedy finds himself alone: “I could open up my heart and fall in/ I could blame it all on dust.”

The Whole Love’s sound shows the band’s increased confidence with themselves. Wilco has had many members leave and join over the past 17 years; the current lineup has only been together since Sky Blue Sky. Whereas the past two albums were mostly commanded by Tweedy, this time Tweedy steps back, allowing the band to shine. Guitars have a more prominent place, and solos pop up in “Born Alone,” “Standing O” and “Art of Almost.” The only constant is Tweedy himself, who remains just as enigmatic as in all other Wilco albums.

Tweedy, in a promotional interview, admitted that part of the lyric writing process for the album was to transcribe random sounds: “I grunt and make noises and sounds that I think sound like what the lyrics would sound like … and then I write them down.” It is this grunting that make up the absurd lyrics in “I Might.” Lyrics like “Do all lies have a taste?” and “You won’t set the kids on fire/ Oh but I might” show Tweedy isn’t afraid to experiment and broaden his lyrical scope. And it works. Though they are just random words that happen to fit into the song, Tweedy’s lyrics manage to convey the emotional weight of the instrumentals. “I Might,” with its amusing lyrics, glides along perfectly with bouncy pop chords, while the contemplative guitar in “Black Moon” complements somber lyrics: “Danced above the blaze/ Never stopped crawling/ Over the black dunes.”

When Tweedy sings intelligible lyrics, we find him at his most romantic. On “Dawned On Me,” we find a pleading Tweedy who “can’t help it if I’m falling/ In love with you again.” A bitter Tweedy appears in “Sunloathe,” to take his anger out on the world: “I loathe the Sun/ Someday I know/ I’ll learn/ How to love.” On “Capitol City,” a hopeful Tweedy reflects: “I wish you were here/ Better yet I wish I was there with you.” The vast contrast between Tweedy’s romantic and random side ultimately make the record an amalgamation of attachment and detachment, chronicling Tweedy’s attempts to fit in; he pulls back when things don’t work out (“Black Moon”) and reaches out when it’s safe (“Dawned on Me”).

The album ends with one of the most beautiful songs on the album, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” Over twelve minutes long, Tweedy contemplates religion’s place in life. About a son who resents his father’s judgmental preaching, the son is filled with regret after his father dies; he misses “being told how to live.” The sudden lack of structure that the son experiences parallels Tweedy’s own loss of direction. Tweedy doesn’t know when he should be romantic or be detached when he tries to fit in, lacking the structure that would’ve supported him.

The vastly different musical styles between The Whole Love and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot show the band’s willingness to experiment with their sound and take risks, and Wilco has proven that they have the knack for taking the right ones. Just like when they bought back Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Warner Brothers, the risk they took with their sound in The Whole Love is a success. Here’s to hoping that lucky streak continues.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng