Mon Nov 07 2011

It’s a hard road, becoming an experimental rock band: once you go there, you can never go back. You try, you make an unpretentiously catchy pop record, and critics and fans will desert you. “Not strange enough!” they’ll cry. So, ever since Wilco made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, which featured a ten-minute noise barrage that most people at the time decried as impenetrable and pointless, the band has farmed increasingly familiar, folky, radio-friendly territory, orchestrating its own critical downslide. The gutsiest thing Wilco could’ve done in 2011 is release another slick album of ballads and shimmering pop-rockers. Instead, Jeff Tweedy and company took the safe route with The Whole Love and got a little bit weird again. There was a lot of excited twitter chatter when “Art Of Almost” leaked, with its Radiohead-aping intro and Nels Cline spazz-out coda, Wilco getting noisier than Wilco had gotten in a while. I’m just as much a sucker for weirdness as anybody, but I still have a little bit of baggage on my brain left over from 2009’s Wilco (The Album) and the indifference it was treated with by the public.

Those of us who feel compelled to keep up with modern music often fall into the trap of listening to an album a handful of times while writing, surfing, tweeting, corresponding, organizing, not really paying attention, and discarding it before we really get a sense of it. I was fortunate (depending on how you look at it) enough to have learned my lesson with Wilco the excruciatingly hard way. A coworker introduced me to Wilco with 1999’s Summerteeth when it came out, and at the time, I sort of dug it but was a little bewildered by all the Mellotron and a little turned off by how Tweedy’s voice sounded an awful lot like Jerry Garcia’s. So I gave it a few spins and then let the cassette gather dust for almost a decade, basically sleeping through the whole Foxtrot era somehow. It wasn’t until 2008 that I finally saw Wilco live (Bonnaroo ’04 doesn’t count; I saw part of that set but I seriously don’t remember it at all) and thought ‘huh, maybe I’ve been missing something all these years.’

That triumphant headlining set at Lollapalooza inspired me to revisit Summerteeth, and I was crushed by it. Over the past twenty years, there have been maybe a dozen albums produced in the U.S. that are as musically and emotionally jarring to me as that one. Yeah, I’m grateful that I finally came around, but I missed all those years of potentially seeing the band with Jay Bennett, the band’s indisputable turn-of-the-century peak, because I gave up on Summerteeth too soon.

I don’t think most people gave Wilco (The Album) enough of a chance. I was instantly soured by the overt Essence Of Traveling Wilburys stench that emanates from “Wilco (The Song)” and other cheesy-geezer moments. But I kept going back, if only to gear up for the live show, and after many listens I got it. It’s a fantastic album, maybe just a step below Foxtrot in my estimation, but there was so much other fresher, younger music out in 2009, as the instant availability of everything was hitting its current peak/plateau. Everyone was scrambling to be the first to praise or tear down music, hoping everyone else hadn’t already made up their minds, hoping the notion of music criticism itself wasn’t becoming unnecessary now that it, not to mention recorded music, was no longer worth much money. It was as much an image issue as one of genuine worth: nobody wanted to stick his or her neck out for the institution of Wilco when Animal Collective had just changed everything with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Such is the world we live in: not only is it increasingly difficult for young bands to develop a long-term, lucrative career; it’s just as tough for established bands to hold onto an image of relevance without loud bursts of instant gratification (like, say, the new Tom Waits album). But like many of my favorite artists, very little of Jeff Tweedy’s genius can be gleaned from a first impression. Wilco came out in June of ’09. It wasn’t until at least November that I fell in love with it. The Whole Love has only been out since the end of September, and I’ve listened to it a half-dozen times or so. I do like “Art Of Almost” quite a bit, and “Born Alone”, although lyrically a bit silly, really gets me in the end every time with that suddenly aggressive descending flutter. “Open Mind” just strikes me as incredibly sappy; surely Tweedy hasn’t reached the point where he needs to fall back on “hearts entwined” lyrics? But then there’s “One Sunday Morning”, which definitely sounds like old Wilco, sort of precious at times but it has that sub-surface gravity, part wistful and part depressed, and it has never once felt anywhere near twelve minutes long.

The rest of the album: meh. There are lots of impressive moments, but very few that move me. But there’s no way I’m going to stop listening to it any time soon. I know there’s a good chance that half a year down the road, or maybe after I see the band play it live next month, I’ll suddenly be touched by “Open Mind”, or “Black Moon” will make sense, or I’ll be able to penetrate the cute exterior of “Dawned On Me”. There’s never been a Wilco album that I loved at first, and even though right now I can’t see how The Whole Love could possibly become one of my favorites, even though so far it seems like a few token gestures of we’re-not-done-experimenting-yet plus a bunch of middle-aged filler, I’m not going make the mistake again of dismissing it too soon. Hopefully.

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