Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)


1. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart 2. Kamera 3. Radio Cure 4. War On War 5. Jesus, Etc. 6. Ashes Of American Flags 7. Heavy Metal Drummer 8. I’m The Man Who Loves You 9. Pot Kettle Black 10. Poor Places 11. Reservations


God dammit. I didn’t want to give this one the A+. I really didn’t. Is it a perfectly contained, immaculately expressed, 52-minute musical statement? Yes. Is it one of the most influential albums of the post-Nirvana era? Definitely. Is it heartbreakingly odd, beautiful, brilliant, and pretty much the only reason anyone is going to remember Wilco beyond a few years from now? Absolutely yes, yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. But isn’t it also whiny, pretentious, and basically the reason for the existence and popularity of St. Vincent, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, James Blake and a myriad of other namby pamby, dickless laptop rock artists who make music for college hipsters with scruffy shit beards and beanie hats to scratch their balls to? With that in mind, I tried resisting. But I just couldn’t.

The thing about YHF is not only that it’s a great album, but that it had a deep effect on musical culture, and especially on the music industry; its repercussions extend far beyond the mere music it contains. As much as I’m sick of narrow-minded old people talking about how all new music sucks as they search the radio dial for “Light My Fire” so they can listen to it for the 1,879,622nd time in their long, dull lives, they have a point when they say things like, “music meant something back then, man.” People listen to the Beatles 50 years later mostly because they’re great, but also because they, you know, changed the world. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is every bit as good of a Paul McCartney song as, say, “Penny Lane,” but we laugh at Wings because they just did fluffy meaningless pop songs, while all the stupid songs Paul did in the Beatles are revered and indelibly ingrained into our collective musical conscience because we know that the Beatles completely altered society as we know it, or at least gave voice and inspiration to the people that did. What music sounds like is of course the most crucial factor that goes into whether or not one enjoys it, but our perception of the context it emerged from and the effect it has or had on people is important too.

Likewise, Wilco made plenty of great music before, and after, they did this album, but none of it will be remembered like Foxtrot will, and that has everything to do with the story behind it. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have come up with a better tale of struggle and redemption in the perilous world of the early 21st Century record industry. You have the classic David and Goliath, art vs. business struggle, wherein the scrappy indie band (with Kevin Bacon as Jeff Tweedy) breaks its back in the studio for a year making their masterpiece, in the process replacing their drummer, getting a new producer and coming to the verge of forcing out their second-in-command. Then, when they finally finish the record, they send it off to a sterile boardroom of cold, corporate slimeballs (Willam Dafoe, Alan Alda and Clint Eastwood), who reject it for being “too uncommercial” because all they care about are profits, cocaine and hookers. So the band decided to release the album for free on the internet. Remember, this was back in 2001, when just about everybody in the music industry was fighting tooth and nail to destroy Napster. Everyone gives Radiohead blowjobs for the whole “pay what you want” scheme they concocted for In Rainbows, but when YHF came out, Radiohead were still cozily entrapped in a major label contract and probably shit their pants when they heard about the free YHF stream. But the irony is—and it’s perfect for the big happy Hollywood ending—when the album finally did come out, it ended up becoming extremely popular, universally acclaimed, and Wilco made a ton of money and become famous. THE END.

Well, OK, not really the end. I still have like half a dozen of their albums to review after this one. But hell, why not roll the credits, because nothing Wilco do will ever match what they accomplished here. But it took changing what Wilco was to do it. The first step was firing the rock solid Ken Coomer and replacing him with the more experimental-minded Glenn Kotche, who can do things with a drum set that most rock drummers would never even conceive of. Then when it came time to mix and sequence the thing, the competing visions of Tweedy and Bennett—Bennett wanted to emphasize the melodic and accessible, while Tweedy wanted to make it as weird as possible—forced the entry of a mediator: Jim O’Rourke, who remixed the album to Tweedy’s taste and did such a good job that he won over even Bennett. It took a lot of cooks to get the album into the shape in ended up in, and it could have gone in a lot of different directions. Fortunately, it ultimately went in the right one, and one that didn’t sound particularly like anything that had come before it. At once lush and stark, robotic and earthy, alien and deeply American, Foxtrot whooshes in like a glorious half-remembered dream – its meaning may have become jumbled and abstract by the morning, but the angelic sounds of your subconscious will still be ringing in your ears long after you’ve awoken.

Many of the words may indeed seem like cluttered cut and paste jobs, but Tweedy manages to wring far more emotion and meaning out of obscurisms like the famous opening line, “I am an American aquarium drinker” than he ever did out of a literal approach to lyric writing. But his lyrics are primarily not self-centered introspection (except for the album’s weakest track, the closer “Reservations”). He often explores, albeit abstractly, the shallowness of American consumerism, with its “disposable dixie cup drinkers” and “Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes,” and the depravity of the country’s modern, corporatized soul. It was a very apropos album for its time, the 9/11 era, which is another reason why it captured the indie rock zeitgeist so fiercely. The album was finished before 9/11, so all the talk of ashes of American flags and tall buildings shaking and the towers on the cover are just coincidences. But that doesn’t subtract from their power. In fact, I’ll be damned if “Ashes Of American Flags” isn’t the most goddamned patriotic song I’ve ever heard – but I’ll save myself the agony of trying to explain why to John Ashcroft. If I owned a baseball team, I’d play it during the 7th inning stretch instead of “God Bless America” – hands over your hearts, motherfuckers. Overall, Tweedy comes up with more memorable lines on this album than the rest of his career combined. Few lyricists are ever deep enough in the zone to capture their deepest emotions as fluidly and poignantly, but also as adventurously, as Tweedy does here.

Now, there has been some debate about the true veracity and ingenuity of Foxtrot’s experimental bent. Because aren’t all these songs just basic folk rock songs meant to be played on acoustic guitar that Jim O’Rourke turned into something else entirely? Isn’t experimentation supposed to be embedded within the songwriting rather than grafted on later (I’ve heard many people make this argument, and frankly I don’t see what difference it makes)? But who says this is inherently experimental music? Who says it isn’t folk music? There are different ways of playing folk music, you know. And in 2002 it means something different than it did in 1940. Besides, how could anyone possibly conceive of tracks like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” turning out differently than it did and still working the way it does? Because nothing about the song seems like it should come off successfully. It’s just three strummed acoustic chords circling along for seven minutes, the lyrics don’t make any logical sense, the drumming stops and starts in strange patterns, and there are a series of bizarre noise collages swirling and droning around the mix that at first don’t seem to have anything to do with the actual song. But somehow, all elements coalesce around Tweedy’s abstract soul baring and it becomes a deeply moving masterpiece. Indeed, it can take awhile to acclimate oneself to some of these songs and understand why they work so well – like “Radio Cure,” which at first seems aggravatingly slow and mopey, but when the haze is broken through at the end for the “distance has no way of making love understandable” section, we begin to see the first four minutes as a close-to-the-bone representation of the pain of apartness.

But don’t be scared off by thinking the album is all slow and sad. There are as many great pop songs here as there were on Summerteeth – they’re just wearing a different shade. “Kamera” and “War On War” are impossibly crisp, and “Pot Kettle Black” shares their hyperactive acoustic strumming and surges to a triumphant, sunny-sounding chorus. “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” are straight up AM pop songs, the former even going to the lengths of including the chorus refrain, “Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” Secondary melodic elements dominate and elevate these songs, whether they be bubbling keyboards, a horn section, a few well-placed lead guitar licks, or the violin on the incredibly romantic “Jesus, Etc.” aka Wilco’s designated “everybody sing along!” anthem. If you ask me, this is how I’ll take my experimentalism: great songwriting, but with a delivery we’ve never heard before. If you don’t have the songs to back up your boundary pushing meanderings, well, more often than not you’re just dicking around. Give me songs with them, and you can change the world.

I’ve written entirely too much about this album, especially considering the fact that if you scroll up like 57 paragraphs to the top, you’ll see that I intended to prove that it isn’t that big of a deal. But it is. It really is.

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