Wilco – The Whole Love

The Whole Love (2011)

B+

1. Art Of Almost 2. I Might 3. Sunloathe 4. Dawned On Me 5. Black Moon 6. Born Alone 7. Open Mind 8. Capitol City 9. Standing O 10. Rising Red Lung 11. Whole Love 12. One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)

 

After shoving about twice my weight in deep fried carnival-style foodstuffs down my throat for dinner, I spent the last two hours recuperating by sitting in the Kilpat living room playing Crash Bandicoot. Basically, my life has bizarrely reverted to the same state it was in when I was 11. What was Wilco doing when I was 11? Releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Now those were the good old days. 5th grade fucking ruled. YHF fucking ruled. So Wilco decided it would be a good idea to try to remember how they did things back when everything fucking ruled. And they discovered that if they put some goddamned effort into it, it can go a long way. Hence, we have The Whole Love, the big “best since A Ghost Is Born!” record. The fact that that’s the way the album is being hyped by many in the media and blogosphere speaks volumes about the point the band has reached in their career: the dreaded “best since…” phase, which occurs after a band’s artistic development has basically stagnated. Symptoms include greatest hits-styled live setlists and endless strings of mediocre albums. For instance, the “best since Some Girls!” phase the Stones have been in for the last 33 years.

But that’s no reason to give up on Wilco just yet, when it’s obvious that Jeff Tweedy can still write songs and the band can still come up with lots of interesting musical ideas. The Whole Love makes that clear enough. But there’s nothing particularly unexpected here; it’s basically the exact same “Wilco grab bag” idea as Wilco (The Album) done several times better. Like, say, “Dawned On Me” isn’t that far removed, in theory, from mediocre wannabe-Summerteeth pop like “Sonny Feeling” on the last album, but it’s better in every way imaginable – the chorus is much stronger, there are interesting things going on timbre-wise, the lyrics are well done (in this particular case, they’re funny, seeming like a clever parody of a “moon/June” pop song). It just sounds like they put some real time into it, instead of tossing it off in a couple of weeks and then starting to make calls about getting a photo shoot-ready camel for the cover. There are layers and layers to these mixes, with all sorts of cool keyboards and guitars bouncing around your headphones, making it clear that this album was made by people who know all the right buttons to push. And topping it off is the guitar of Nels Cline, who finally delivers a studio performance worthy of his considerable reputation… whether with tightly coiled spurts over the tough groove of “I Might,” shrieking melody lines on the super catchy folk pop “Born Alone,” or even light but crucial atmospheric touches on the quieter acoustic songs, he’s everywhere. But let’s also give it up for the unsung John Stirratt, whose bass parts seem to be more prominent and solid on here than ever before. So, uh… yay bass!

Although The Whole Love still doesn’t go anywhere Wilco haven’t been before, it proceeds with enough flair and quirk to feel as though the band isn’t merely retracing their steps halfheartedly like the last time around. With its high preponderance of power pop melodies, lush synth strings and melodic backing vocals, its most analogous ancestor in the Wilco catalog is Summerteeth. Sure, you got your quiet, lonesome country folk songs (“Black Moon,” “Rising Red Lung,” certainly the two most wistful, mumbly Tweedy songs since A Ghost Is Born… “Black Moon” even reminds me of Uncle Tupelo’s “Black Eye), but The Whole Love is certainly their poppiest effort since ’99. “Dawned On Me” rocks; the title track rolls (even Tweedy’s shaky falsetto can’t come close to ruining such a wonderfully breezy Wings-esque melody); there’s even a soft jazz number a la “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” called “Capitol City” that I’m sure I’m supposed to hate but I think is just cute as a button. Can’t you picture guys with handlebar mustaches in red and white pinstriped suits strolling along the boardwalk on Coney Island when you listen to this song? What’s that? That sounds gay? Yeah, well, fuck you. “Sunloathe” even takes the late 90s Brian Wilson fetishism sound to a new level by resembling something from Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. Of the pop songs, only “Standing O” stretches itself to the edges of the realm of good taste by bearing an uncomfortable similarity to Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” (which, to be clear, is a song I like… but not one I feel is in need of ripping off). But overall, I’m impressed with Tweedy’s melodic prowess here.

But nobody cares about Wilco doing pop songs, right? The people want experimentation, goddamn it! Well, I guess they get it with “Art Of Almost,” which seems like a concerted effort to please those people who only want Wilco to do weird shit. Over 7 minutes, it veers from stuttering drums to chill electronica to lush synth string swells to a pounding bass groove, coming off a little disjointed in the process… fortunately, Cline’s freakout solo at the end makes it worth the wait. It’s a pretty cool song, but not the return to early 2000s Wilco brilliance that many people seem to want to make it out to be. Better is the gorgeous extendo-folk closer “One Sunday Morning,” which I do believe is worthy of comparison to any of Tweedy’s past accomplishments. It’s 12 minutes long, but the band latches on to such a hypnotic, low-key groove that I feel like it could go on for 20 more and I wouldn’t care. And it makes this much clear: Wilco ain’t dead yet.



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