Wilco – A.M.

A.M. (1995)

B

1. I Must Be High 2. Casino Queen 3. Box Full Of Letters 4. Shouldn’t Be Ashamed 5. Pick Up The Change 6. I Thought I Held You 7. That’s Not The Issue 8. It’s Just That Simple 9. Should’ve Been In Love 10. Passenger Side 11. Dash 7 12. Blue Eyed Soul 13. Too Far Apart

 

When I reviewed Buffalo Springfield, I talked about how Neil Young was basically “the other guy” in the band while Stephen Stills was the head honcho, creatively and popularity wise, and a post-breakup reversal of fortunes has turned Neil into a rock deity and Stills into an asthmatic toad. As far as I know, that saga is the most analogous trajectory for the post-Uncle Tupelo careers of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. It’s almost quaint to imagine that there was once a time when they were considered equal or competitive powers. Now, Wilco has a reputation for being one of the most formidable and well-respected rock bands in the world, while only a very small group of strange, smelly people give a crap about anything Jay Farrar has done in the last several years (I’m actually one of those people. I go to college with a bunch of hippies, OK? Nobody showers very much. We have better things to do). But I swear, it wasn’t always like that. Back in ’95, the No Depression world was abuzz with speculation about how the first albums by Tweedy’s and Farrar’s hastily formed new bands (Wilco and Son Volt, respectively) would stack up against one another. Wilco landed the first blow with A.M. in March, but Son Volt struck back hard with the indisputable classic Trace in September, and it was clear who had won the first round. Not that A.M. was bad or anything, but when it’s placed in a head to head matchup with Trace, Farrar comes out looking like a frigging genius and Tweedy, by comparison, like an inadequate dope.

The way I see it, Tweedy came out swinging with Wilco so quickly after the Unkie breakup that he didn’t have time to a) spare much brainpower on progressing or reinventing his sound and style, or b) write very many memorable songs. The strategy seems to be: smoke a bowl (the first song on here is called “I Must Be High,” after all, and it doesn’t sound like he’s just saying that), write ‘em, and bash ‘em out quick before the residual magic left over from Uncle Tupelo runs out. I suppose it can be argued that he’d never written more than half an album before and there was bound to be filler here. But his songs on Anodyne were such massive leaps forward for him, and only a couple of years later, A.M. sees him taking several steps back.

Much of the songwriting is lazy and simple, but also mindlessly enjoyable, though there’s truly nothing that rivals four of the five Tweedy songs on Anodyne. Or anything that even tries, because A.M. is not quite as bona fide alt-country as many Uncle Tupelo fans surely would’ve hoped at the time. See, the band definitely made a concerted effort to integrate some sort of pop influence into their sound here – hence the album title. But they were either too lazy or too wary of audience backlash to follow through with it all the way. So, bereft of the requisite amount of catchy hooks, but maintaining the hick-fried instrumentation, the album veers a bit too close for comfort to pussified 70’s country rock. It’s basically nearer to the Eagles than Gram Parsons, and that’s never a good sign for anything. Accordingly, the mix is very slick, punctuated by overloud vocals and thwacking drums, presumably to accentuate that unrealized poppiness. But as a result, there’s almost no grit to be found, so when they try to do a fast hoedown thing, for instance, with “That’s Not The Issue,” it comes out sounding incredibly stupid when it might’ve sounded nice and woodsy on Anodyne.

The band gets some mileage out of their new approach. The single “Box Full Of Letters” is just fine, and addresses the split with Farrar in the most charmingly childlike terms possible – try to imagine one of those assholes from Oasis singing “You’ll come back again/And I’ll still be your friend” for his brother; “Passenger Side” is sloppily endearing; and “Casino Queen” sports a massive riff and an even bigger hook – just barely big enough to overshadow how dumb the lyrics are and how unimaginatively obvious of a Stones/Faces homage the song is. But there’s just a little too much dull schlock here – it says a lot that the saving grace of the album’s middle third is “It’s Just That Simple,” a decent ballad written and sung by John Stirratt, and in fact the only Wilco song on which someone other than Tweedy sings lead (boy, he sure quashed democracy fast, huh?). I wouldn’t be able to find a reason to care about several of these songs if it weren’t for the dazzling guitar work of Brian Henneman, who absolutely owns on this record. His chilling, quavering feedback interludes on “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” are among the only truly surprising musical ideas on the album; his layers of simple, intertwining leads on “Box Full Of Letters” make the song; and he can rip it up on solos probably better than anyone else Tweedy could have possibly harangued into the job. Of course, he couldn’t stay, and Wilco never would have evolved the way they did if he had, but for now, he’s a saving grace.

Maybe it’s just weird to hear Tweedy sounding so goddamn upbeat and big-beaty; we love him for the times when he’s melancholic, bitter, or at the very least contemplative, don’t we? That’s why I don’t think things really get interesting until the album’s final third or so. “Dash 7” will hold the most familiarity of any song here for fans of later Wilco – the gorgeous, haunting acoustic picking and the sparse, lonesome feel harkens to the sad-sack Tweedy of later years we all know and love. “Blue Eyed Soul” is similarly affecting, while the acceptant tone of “Too Far Apart”—another Farrar-focused song—brings us back toward the light with a good old-fashioned guitar orgy. It’s as if, by the end of the album, they’d already moved on from what they were trying to do at the beginning – and realized they were on to something. The evolution would continue.