Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

Wilco (The Album) (2009)

B-

1. Wilco (The Song) 2. Deeper Down 3. One Wing 4. Bull Black Nova 5. You And I 6. You Never Know 7. Country Disappeared 8. Solitaire 9. I’ll Fight 10. Sonny Feeling 11. Everlasting Everything

 

Stubbornly, spectacularly mediocre and inconsequential. When the most memorable thing about an album is its cheeky title and the funny camel on the cover, you know there’s a problem. But although there’s nothing really great on it (with one exception), there’s nothing really bad on it either (with one exception). Wilco are too damned professional at this point to let a whole album go by without at least some artistic merit. But The Album is all professionalism and not nearly enough creative spark; it seems like more of a marketing ploy than part of a creative arc. If that sounds particularly harsh coming from little ole me, then consider the development of Wilco’s sound that took place on each of their successive LP before this one, including Sky Blue Sky. Then consider that this album consolidates all those developments into one place in a rather banal, inferior manner. Which means that although almost all these songs range from “fairly decent” to “good,” this album basically has no reason to exist because it contains not an ounce of new artistic development for the band. There are nods to Summerteeth-ian pop (“Wilco (The Song),” “Sonny Feeling”), Being There classic rockism (“You Never Know,” which directly quotes George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” slide guitar riff, “Everlasting Everything,” which bares an uncanny resemblance to any given Paul McCartney piano ballad you can think of), moody introspection a la Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born (“One Wing,” “Deeper Down”), and “Country Disappeared,” which confirms all my fears about what Sky Blue Sky might’ve sounded like without all the guitars (hint: pretty darn weak). But there’s nothing you haven’t heard them do ten times better already. It all just seems very tossed off, and while there’s nothing wrong with making an intentionally light, breezy album every once in a while, would it have killed Tweedy to at least sound like he spent more than a few days writing the album?

I think I’m being too mean. The burden of high expectations like those I have for Wilco is that when they’re not lived up to, even if it’s only by a little bit, resentment is bound to arise. And I still gave the album a B-, which isn’t that bad. And it’s not a bad album – just very middling. So I’m sorry, Jeff. I really am. I’ll bake you some cookies or something next time I’m in Chicago. But if you’ll allow me to be honest for a moment, it’s obvious that The Album is the work of a fat, contented guy with zero desire to break out of his comfort zone. Now, if there’s anyone whose body of work supports the myth that it’s the tortured artist who makes the best art, it’s Jeff Tweedy. Now, from what I’ve read in interviews, Tweedy seems to resent the far too prevalent idea that an artist must be going through some sort of hardship or turmoil in order to make great art. And he’s got a point, because that’s a ludicrous belief, and anyone who says, “You can’t be happy and make great art!” is a fucking idiot. But it’s pretty interesting to look at the guy’s career and notice the correlations between his emotional state and the quality of his music. When he’s depressed, addicted to drugs, and going through marital strife? He makes Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. As a happy family man? He makes Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album). What does that mean? Hey, I report, you decide.

I’m not saying there’s nothing here worth your while. “Wilco (The Song)” takes the listener-artist relationship theme of Being There to its logical extreme, with Tweedy not even bothering to disguise the fact that he’s singing about himself as a stand-in for rock ‘n roll in general, assuring the listener that “Wilco will love ya, baby.” It’s cute and catchy, but the song is obviously lightweight, with a chugging guitar/keyboard riff not dissimilar to “Werewolves Of London.” The only song that completely defies all the criticisms I’ve outlined is “Bull Black Nova,” one of the coolest, most badass Wilco songs ever. As Tweedy sings about just having murdered someone, stabbing, pounding riffs approximate the pure dread of the character’s cripplingly anxious headspace, building to a crescendo of a “Spiders”-esque Cline/Tweedy shred-off and Tweedy’s anguished shrieks of “PICK UP!” It’s a brilliant musical and lyrical narrative, like a perfectly contained five and half minute crime drama where we don’t get many of the facts but we do get all the emotion. But then it ends, and in its place arrives a twee indie folk ballad called “You And I” that wants to be in an iPod commercial so bad it even has Feist singing harmony. And it’s back to the mediocrity.

I have a feeling that casual fans and the uninitiated with softer palates would probably like this album since it’s so blandly pleasant and inoffensive. It’s professionally crafted pop rock music for adults, and I bet it sounds great playing in the background while you sit in your living room folding your 9-year old son’s laundry. But the rest of us know how goddamned lazy it is.



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