Saturday, 6 June 2009

Wilco (The Album)

>>They're funny fuckers, Wilco. Crawling out from the sticky, chargrilled carcass of Uncle Tupelo in the mid-90s, they dragged the mangled entrails along with them on their journey through the powdery American twilight. Displaying both tenacity and tenderness, the songwriting of founder and frontman Jeff Tweedy soon eclipsed that of lugubrious Tupelo ex-partner Jay Farrar. And yet, in the quest for what he termed "pure bug beauty", Tweedy subjected his songs to all manner of creative ill-treatment, often with the help of temporary aides such as the late Jay Bennett and Jim O'Rourke, collaborative fingers digging greedily and bloodily for the core of the music. With their second album, the double-length Being There, Wilco emerged as secular soothsayers. On 1999's Summerteeth and the album posterity will most likely chalk up as their definitive effort, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy's artistic abuse didn't obscure the emotional content of his songs. On the contrary, his tales of dislocation, loneliness and the eternal struggle to connect were accurately conveyed via the use of reduction and subtraction, distortion and overload.

>>2004's A Ghost Is Born was even more boldly experimental, but slightly less successful. There was hardly a bad song on it but it was an often chilly record, the desperate humanity of its predecessor traded for a glacial abstraction which didn't really suit, the warmth that characterised Wilco's records up to this point only present in flashes as the band wrangled with their new reputation for abstruseness. 2006's Sky Blue Sky saw the group lurch unexpectedly into bland, coddling soft rock, with a set of laidback tunes that seemed, for the most part, rushed and underbaked - all the more disappointing given this was the band's first effort to feature Nels Cline, the guitarist partly responsible for a fiery, groundbreaking interpretation of John Coltrane's Interstellar Space. At least, as I remarked in my review of the album in the May 2007 issue of Plan B Magazine, there was at least some consolation to be derived from the fact that Wilco had retained their ability to wrongfoot even their most loyal admirers.

>>Aside #1: in Barcelona last weekend for the Primavera Sound festival, I returned to my hotel room late at night and flicked on the TV. After a few minutes of half-hearted channel-surfing I tripped over some footage of Wilco from their appearance at the festival two years previously. After two songs in a row from Sky Blue Sky, I switched off.

>>I first became acquainted with the music of Wilco during a period of acute anxiety triggered by the excessive use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and MDMA, both of which were easily available in Brighton throughout the summer of 2004. I would eventually be diagnosed as suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It was my good friend Anna, the one person who seemed to 'get' what I was going through and was therefore instrumental in preventing me from tipping over the lip into full-freak insanity prior to diagnosis, who encouraged me to dig out my neglected copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I was relieved. The Wilco I got to know back then was comforting, but certainly not smooth; their music wasn't an immaculate surface I could slide down into the abyss. There was always a ledge or crag to hold onto, delaying my descent.

>>Jeff Tweedy's voice was one such useful jut. Sleepy, often bewildered, one bad decision away from Wilson-like 'gee-whiz' naivete yet at times roused to a resentful caw, it voiced – much better than I could at the time – my exhaustion, my dim hope, my bruised optimism, my nostalgia for better times, my paranoia, my abject fear. Tweedy's very human delivery made me feel understandable. And his lyricism, a succession of evocative images and fragmentary assertions loaded with emotional resonance, mangled syntax until it resembled the reality that shimmers elusively between our heads and what's outside 'em. 'Radio Cures' from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - I played that song, wordlessly, to my girlfriend at the time, Katie, hoping she would understand that I was trying to tell her something. "Cheer up honey I wish you would/There is something wrong with me." I think she was so numbed by the shock of her boyfriend turning into human static, as though some meddling cosmic stepfather had left me tuned between channels before falling asleep on his cosmic couch, that she didn't notice me crackling faintly on the exterior of the cocoon she had wisely spun for her own protection.

>>The advance buzz on Wilco (The Album) was that it constituted a return to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style studio experimentation. Given that the advance buzz on Sonic Youth's recent The Eternal was that it would betray the influence of black metal, I was, uh, sceptical. I did, however, hold out hope that Wilco (The Album) would be a better record than Sky Blue Sky. I wanted my Wilco back, the Wilco that had walked with me through near-terminal moments. The Wilco that transmitted 'Radio Cures' direct into my overheated head and painted monochrome pictures of 'Poor Places' as I shuddered in my living room above Cambridge Road, terrified that I was going to have to kill myself to avoid visiting harm upon my loved ones. OCD can be a bitch, especially when you don't yet know what it is.

>>I wanted the Wilco that had formed part of my newly restricted musical diet alongside George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. I couldn't bear listening to anything that revelled in violence anymore - the extreme metal I had been writing about up to that point mirrored too closely the carnage inside my head. I ached for something to dissolve the ugliness that confronted me whenever I turned my vision inward.... intersections of eyeballs, scissors, lips and knives. Around this time I developed a fascinated fear of sharp objects; when Katie wasn't looking I would wrap them over and over in sellotape and deposit them into a black plastic bag, which I would take downstairs and thrust into the rubbish bin, after which I could breathe again, for the moment.

>>I'm no longer quite so scared of myself as I was back in that eternal overcast afternoon. And while I haven't had the Wilco of back then returned to me, I've been gifted with something just as precious. Wilco (The Album) isn't a hybrid of previous records, thank heavens. What a dull idea! Who comes up with these rumours? Accountants? In an interview in the latest (and sadly, final) edition of Plan B Magazine, bassist John Stirratt compares the new opus to Summerteeth. It certainly shares a linear accessibility with that album. But this record wouldn't sound the way it does if there hadn't been a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or an A Ghost Is Born or even a Sky Blue Sky. The latter was soft work, for sure, but it was partly redeemed by some tentative Television-style interplay between guitarists Cline and Tweedy, and that relationship is developed further here, especially on the merciless, murderous 'Bull Black Nova', the "precise wildness" of which also qualifies as an improvement on the wannabe-kraut repetition of 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' from A Ghost Is Born. Keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen chimes in between the guitars during the song's tense, thrilling middle section, the result as Reich/Glass as it is Verlaine/Lloyd. There's also the fact that Wilco has been a fair few different bands since the days of Summerteeth. Once-key members have come and gone, the membership only stabilising over the last couple of years.

>>Wilco (The Album) appears confident, but never complacent. These songs do not merely emerge from the speakers and deposit themselves Schmoo-like in the listener's lap, malleable and ingratiating, like those on Sky Blue Sky. Wilco dig right into these compositions, bruising them, grazing them, stamping their mark into the flesh, and what results is a set of 11 cleanly-defined, self-contained, memorable experiences. The opening song, from whence came the album's disarming title, indicates that the playful, self-aware aspect of Wilco is back, even if there's a marked absence of digital shitstorms, 15-minute drones or motoriks. Here the willingness to tamper with the fabric of rock is largely restricted to the lyrics, through which Tweedy reveals an acute – perhaps even sly - awareness of his band's strengths: "A sonic shoulder for you to cry on/Wilco will love you baby." The songwriter's desire to cut the bullshit is to admirable - “C'mon,” Tweedy seems to be saying, “you and I both know what's at stake here.” A ravaged howl of feedback blows its way up through the body of the tune, recalling Robert Fripp's work on Bowie's 'Heroes'. Overall though, the main riff is easy on the avant, its lupine swagger suggesting a turbocharged take on Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves Of London' with a healthy dose of Mott The Hoople detectable in the joyous bell-ringing of the middle eight.

>>Aside #2: speaking of Zevon, I've also been listening to the late singer-songwriter's ambitious 1989 science fiction concept album, Transverse City, which could almost be a part-buried touchstone for Wilco's blend of rootsiness and modernism/futurism. It isn't a completely successful album (although the manner in which the parts don't fit could be considered consistent with its lyrical evocations of a shabby, savage future) but there aren't many records which could be said to present the missing link between late 80s adult orientated rock and Thomas Pynchon. Respect due, I'd say.

>>Is Wilco (The Album) a return to form? Not really. These songs aren't a 'return' to anything. They're the latest flowering of a unique and constantly evolving talent. Tweedy's grasp of process is firmer than ever. He's no longer the innocent, fumbling blindly, the still-learning avant neophyte who required O'Rourke to bring order to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He's now able to punch straight to the centre of the song and focus on what is required, as with the cinematic, episodic Deeper Down, with its edits, pauses, screenwipes and crossfades. But wait... cinematic? Perhaps that should be literary? The breezy Sunny Feeling embedded itself in my consciousness just as I was finishing Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast Of Champions, and its themes of split destinies and cracked realities tessellated perfectly with Vonnegut's cathartic/satirical splurge. It's worth adding that Tweedy exhibits a similar compassion and humour to Vonnegut's, as well as a comparable inclination towards humanism, best illustrated by the album finale, the kindly fatalistic 'Everlasting Everything': “Oh I know this might sound sad/Everything goes for the good and the bad/So it all adds up and you should be glad/Everlasting love is all you have.” Delivered via the good luck charm of Tweedy's voice, the sentiment comes across as pure and sincere, learned from experience, all the more powerful in the light of former associate Jay Bennett's recent passing.

>>Another echo of Vonnegut, and also Philip K Dick: it seems there aren't many truly human rock groups left. The landscape is littered with well-programmed machines, components of an even bigger and colder and more powerful machine. Wilco are so human it hurts; and the fact that it hurts confirms not only their humanity but also my own.