Wilco: The Whole Love


Nearly ten years ago, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco were basking in the glory.  Having successfully usurped the music industry by buying back the label rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band members were gracing magazine covers, topping year-end lists, and playing to the largest crowds of their career.  Since then, Wilco’s fan base has gotten exponentially bigger and watched them turn into a live juggernaut as the lineup has stabilized around the expert craftsmen Tweedy has assembled to fully flesh out the sound-scapes in his ever evolving musical head.  The band is a force; their technical prowess sharp enough to expertly recreate the myriad chord and note changes reflective of their catalog, yet spontaneous enough to fire off some of the fiercest freak-out jams rock music has seen.  However, as strong as these credentials have become, Wilco has had a hard time winning over critics with its studio output since those Early Millennial golden years.  Much division greeted A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky, and Wilco (The Album) as charges of pretension, circumlocution, and most derisively “Dad Rock” were thrown about in reaction to the work.  The live shows never failed to draw praise, but lots of onlookers worried that perhaps the recorded material would cease to stand up to the band’s high water marks. 

All troubled thoughts and hand-wringing should cease however, as Wilco has released The Whole Love, a fully realized collection of tunes versatile, commanding, and magnificent.  This album is bold, yet painted with deft touches; powerful and evolved, yet simple and stripped down when need be; grippingly philosophical yet still fun enough to demand sing-alongs.  In short, it is a work of measured brilliance and a statement to the masses that Wilco is still a force to be reckoned with, capable of releasing meaningful testimonials that can stand up to the giant shadows created by the legend of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco wastes little time getting its point across, opening the album with the seven-minute-plus shredder “Art of Almost”.  Unlike anything in their catalog, the song slowly opens with a wall of distortion and trip-hop beats before crescendoing into a gorgeous swirl of noise that opens up enough for Tweedy to begin reciting his cryptic lyrics over a buzzed-up bass beat.  At the four-minute mark, things get slightly familiar as Wilco expands upon some previous tricks that have made their work so unique.  As the music slowly begins to die down, (think the back halves of songs like “Misunderstood” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” for reference) things halt and as the listener thinks the song is ending, a searing Nels Cline guitar solo kicks things back into gear and an epic squall of jam leads the song out into its ending.  This extended outro is interesting in that it references not only Wilco’s own punishing live arrangements, but those of Crazy Horse, Can, and dare I say it, Phish as well.  It is sure to be a barnburner of a live staple for years to come.

 After this grandiose opening statement, treasures abound throughout the remainder of the album.  There’s the Big Star sugary power pop of first single, “I Might”, the simply tangled beauty of “Sunloathe” that will remind listeners of some of the more harmonious numbers from Summerteeth, and the straight-ahead rockers, “Dawned On Me”, “Born Alone” and “Standing O”.  “Open Mind” hearkens back to Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue sessions, while “Whole Love” illustrates Tweedy’s playful knack for setting simple rhyme schemes to catchy chords.  “Capitol City” even surprises with its’ reverential Sgt. Pepper overtones. 

Over the course of the album, the band seems to make a conscious effort to stay focused and leaves out any filler that may have bogged down the procession of songs.  Although there are lighter moments of tuneful bliss, The Whole Love is a weightier affair, seemingly born out of sense of purpose and assertion.  Now in their mid-40’s, the members of Wilco have become elder statesmen of the music scene, serving as influence to many younger bands who were just coming of age when Wilco’s star began to shine the brightest.  It’s possible to speculate that Tweedy and Co. wanted to use this release as a way of reminding some of the skeptics that the fire still burns and the opportunity to create great art still remains as strong as it ever has.  The band has surely earned the right to headline large venues and festivals for as long as they please, with crowds excitedly following along.  Here, however, Wilco demonstrates that they will continue to be a challenging and imposing outfit in terms of releasing new material.

If there was any doubt, the twelve-minute album closing “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) should erase any misgivings.  Apparently written out of a deeply poignant conversation with the boyfriend of the novelist and frequent Huffington Post contributor of the same name, the song is a masterpiece of non-linear songwriting as Tweedy’s elegiac laments and enigmatic verses (“I said it’s your God I don’t believe in/No, your Bible can’t be true/Knocked down by the long life/He cried out, I fear what waits for you”), build forth to an amazingly satisfying conclusion and fadeout.  This is the type of composition that has been missing from recent Wilco albums, one where Tweedy really mines the well of emotional catharsis.  He can write with the best of them and it is a welcome sight and listen to have him and the band emerge in such a concrete and conscientious manner. 

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