By now, you've probably heard the story of corporate stupidity and short-sightedness that behind Wilco's latest release, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". It goes like this: Wilco deliver the record to their label, only to be told that it is unmarketable and needs to be redone. "Screw you," the group says, knowing they have a good album on their hands, "we're not going to change anything." After a short legal battle, the label releases them from their contract, allowing them to shop the record around to other labels. The good thing is that, even though they've been dropped, the label let them keep the record; they essentially got to record it for free. Wilco then chooses a new label from among half a dozen suitors, and coincidentally, the label happens to be owned by the same global conglomerate that owned their previous label. So essentially, the band got paid twice by the same company for a single record. An added bonus: the record debuted in the top 20, a vindication of their artistic vision.
They were right, toothey did have a great record on their hands. In its overall scope, it's probably not as ambitious as "Summer Teeth", but it is also much more even compared to that disc, without so many red herrings and near-misfires. They reuse a lot of the same tricks (subtle, scratchy samples and ghostly piano parts), but the layers of percussive intrigue added by producer Jim O'Rourke (of Stereolab fame) give "Yankee" a completely different sound.
The album starts off with a bold gamble: a rambling, abstract seven minute opus called "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" that takes a full minute to build into a recognizable tune and longer than that to really hit its stride. But it also happens to be the best song on the record, so it works. Never before have I heard a seven minute song sound so much like a three minute single; by the time its over, you would swear that it couldn't be longer than four minutes tops. Needless to say, it probably could have been much longer; I almost believe that I could listen to a whole album's worth of this song alone.
The lyrics are more abstract, tooJeff Tweedy has certainly benefited from his exposure to Woody Guthrie's poetry. Non-sequiturish verses that at first don't seem to have much to do with each other gradually weave themselves into a tapestry of meaning that is rarely seen in the world of modern pop music:
I wanna hold you in the bible-black pre-dawn
You're quite a quiet domino, marry me now
Take off your band-aid 'cause I don't believe in touchdowns
What was I thinking when we said hello
It might now make much sense now, but trust me, in the context of the song, it's ridiculously deep. It will break your heart, and leave you pining for more.
Throwing your best pitch so early in the count might seem like a mistake, but Wilco's stuff is so good that they can get away with it. The second track, "Kamera", is a solid midtempo rocker, the likes of which are going to vault them into radio-star status someday. "Radio Cure" starts off with a quiet, foreboding guitar line accompanied by Tweedy's quavering voice, but the payoff comes with the bridge and its endlessly repeated line "The distance has no way of making love understandable".
Next we encounter a trio of songs that, if they were released today, would certainly be held up as examples of the effects of 9.11 on the artistic community. Even the titles of "War on War", "Jesus, Etc.", and "Ashes of American Flags" seem to suggest some sort of reference to the attacks. This impression gets stronger when you hear lines like "It's a war on war/You have to lose/You have to learn how to die" ("War"), "Tall buildings shake and voices escape singing sad, sad songs" ("Jesus"), and "I would like to salute
the ashes of American flags/And all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags" ("Ashes"). The problem is, they were all written well over a year before the attacks occurred, so the best we can do to explain them is to chalk them up to the canary-in-a-coalmine prescience of poets and other sensitive types. Still, there won't be many Americans that can hear these songs without thinking of that day.
After this mini-song cycle, Wilco gives us the more upbeat "Heavy Metal Drummer", an ode to summers wasted on hanging out, drinking, and playing music with your friends. It was the album's first single, and the chorus can't help but make you feel nostalgia for your teens: "I miss the innocence I've know/Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned". This is followed by "I'm the Man Who Loves You", a rollicking hayride of a lovesong with flashes of psychedelic guitar noodling thrown in for good measure.
The last three songs are in some ways less remarkable than the material that preceded them, but certainly worthy of inclusion on this album. "Pot Kettle Black" is a nice bridge between the exuberance of "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and the slow, majestic beauty of "Poor Places". The latter song starts off with Tweedy's aching voice simmering over a sea of strings and electronic hums, then gradually adds touches of a tinkling piano, tribal percussion, and other assorted orchestral elements. When the song finally explodes into its climax, it's like watching a translucent blue block of glacial ice break grudgingly off the antarctic shelf, chaotic and beautiful. "Reservations" ends the album on a quiet note, a plaintive plea from a confused man who's sure of only one thing: "I've got reservations/About so many things/But not about you".
Plain and simple: this record is the album of the year, barring a major surprise over the next couple of months. Even after months of repeated listening, I still find myself returning to this album, and finding something new and wonderful every time. If you're at all smart, you're just reading this review for fun, because you've already got this disc. If not, well...what can I say? You're missing out. Lay your hands on it as soon as you can. Sell your blood if you have to.