Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stuff I Have Heard

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

I've been trying for a while now to articulate what I find so damn depressing about Wilco (The Album), but I think I may have finally stumbled onto a good analogy. Those with long-ish memories might recall the early years of this decade, during which Radiohead followed up 1997's OK Computer with a string of increasingly recondite albums - Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. For some reason people were convinced - or, at least, a large and very vocal minority of people were convinced - that at some indefinite point in the future Radiohead would quit all the "experimenting" and return to the guitar-based rock of OK Computer and The Bends. Somehow or other the idea took hold that Radiohead's default format was still post-grunge guitar pop, and that they would eventually return to this format after getting the "weirdness" out of their systems.

This idea was not without precedent: a lot of bands go through "weird" phases, and most eventually make the proverbial "back to basics" record. This expected pattern is old enough that we can actually trace its lineage back to those hoary old grandaddies, the Beatles, who indeed got "weird" with their self-titled "White" album before heading back to basics for the Let It Be sessions and Abbey Road. But this doesn't always happen, sometimes people get "weird" and stay weird. In Radiohead's case, the obviously have very little interest in returning "back to basics", and they seem perfectly content to stay right where they are, making interesting, occasionally difficult but more often than not rewarding music that somehow manages to remain consistently new despite their status as one of the three or four biggest bands on the planet. People stopped making noises about them going back to The Bends sometime around the time Hail to the Thief came out - Radiohead had been making vague comments about their next album having more guitar sound on it since 1998, and people finally figured out that Radiohead's idea of guitar rock had ceased to correspond to most other people's, and the results were getting increasingly prickly, paranoid, dense and difficult. A track like "2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.)" is technically guitar rock, but it's hardly "Just" or "Planet Telex". Kid A is, as you might recall, my third favorite album of the decade, so I've never been one to clamor for them to take what would most obviously be a severe backwards step, but the number of people who were convinced that they should do just that for the majority of the 00s is somewhat baffling to me.

You can probably see where my train of thought it heading here.

After Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, people started calling Wilco the "American Radiohead", and the label stuck enough that it became practically axiomatic. It didn't help matters that they followed up their career-defining magnum opus with the dark, difficult and introspective A Ghost Is Born; just as Radiohead followed OK Computer with Kid A, an album which many at the time deemed to be - you guessed it - dark, difficult and introspective. The difference is that, unlike Radiohead, Wilco really did return to basics after a couple far-out albums. It turns out, unfortunately, that Sky Blue Sky wasn't itself the lapse after a pair of beautifully dense and haunting milestone albums. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born - and even to a degree Summerteeth - were the lapses, because in Jeff Tweedy's mind the Platonic form of Wilco is in fact genial, workmanlike shit.

Perhaps it wouldn't seem to defensive if I hadn't made the error of watching the accompanying DVD that came with the special edition of Sky Blue Sky, in which Tweedy speaks at length about his frustration with the expectations of fans and the anticipated negative reaction to the band's new direction. He comes off like a real prick - no surprise to anyone who's seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart - but more importantly, rather oblivious to his band's appeal. Certainly, it wasn't that people were just churlishly insisting that every album be Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 2, it's that Sky Blue Sky was - a couple exceptions excepted - a piece of rancid, complacent shit that sounded like it fell out of Leo Kottke's winsome, down-home anus.

Wilco (The Album) is only just sightly better, but it's still damnably inconsequential. It has the added bonus of insulting the group's fans, with lyrics like:
Are you under the impression
This isn't your life?
Do you dabble in depression?
Is someone twisting a knife in your back?
It's just depressing. Especially so on a track like "Bull Black Nova", an obvious attempt to ape the success of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", without any of the intellect, drive or power of the latter. It just seems like an apparent sop to the fans who liked "that weird depressing album", not any kind of honest attempt to continue on the same interesting path.

In 2009, Jeff Tweedy has finally succeeded in making Wilco the band he apparently wanted it to be all along - he's the figurehead, the songwriter, the creative director, surrounded by a crack team of session men. The only guy who is still around from the earliest days is the bassist, and that's probably because he keeps his head down. I think it's time for me to say goodbye to Wilco: they had a good run as a great band, but I don't feel the need to stick around and watch them squander that goodwill on coprophilia.

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