wilco (the review)

copyright wilco (the band)I just got home and the good ol’ media center started downloading Wilco’s new album, Wilco (the Album). I’ll say up front the following two things: first, I’m not going to do a formal review of it (now) because it just came out and I want to let it sink in; second, it’s good. Not mind-blowing-on-the-first-listen-oh-my-god-my-life-is-changed-forever good. But good.

While listening, the first time through, I did a quick search to see if it’s been reviewed anywhere. Well, anywhere more reputable than, oh, I don’t know, a blog. (Not that I don’t value your opinion, blogosphere, but some people, present company included, are usually just talking out of their ass.) I came across only one review. And then I found a five-year-old review of…. Wilco more generally, I think…. over at the New York Times. Which was brilliant.

Jeff Fuldauer’s review of the new album says bluntly that Wilco (the Album) is uninspired, that it lacks the boldness of A Ghost is Born or the experimental risks of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At one point, Fuldauer says:

The opening track, “Wilco (The Song)” is exactly what you’d come to expect from the Chicago collective, but not mind-blowing and packaged perfectly for radio promotion (3 mins long) as if the material was requested by the suits handling the band’s marketing.

Back in 2004, and over in the New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh warned us about the cult of Wilco, that ever since they were dumped by (or dumped) Reprise, they’ve become the symbolic, contemporary referent for everything that is right and pure and good about American music versus those horrible corporate guys who are systematically trying to kill music. Sanneh writes:

This is the way many listeners have been trained to think about Wilco, and it’s a minor miracle that the band still sounds good in the face of all this reactionary rhetoric, so eager to divide the world into Tweedys and J-Los. I love ”Yankee,” too, but if we absolutely have to pick sides, I think I’ll join the multiethnic horde on the dance floor.

The point here is that the rapid fans have tended over the last few years to create a lovely altar upon which to stick Wilco — “an army of earnest listeners, inordinately proud of their own middlebrow tastes.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this idolization of an artist, any artist, tends to make one a bit blind. Or in this case, tone deaf.

When I first heard Wilco’s last album, Sky Blue Sky, I really liked it. I liked it in part because it wasn’t A Ghost is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a simple, straightforward, rock-and-roll record not trying to be anything more than it was, free of all delusions of grandeur. I’m having a similar experience right now, listening to “Bull Black Nova” on Wilco (the Album). After reading that second review, from the Times, I think I might appreciate Wilco’s last two albums on a new level. Fuldauer’s real criticism of the album isn’t that it’s not good; his criticism is that it’s not as good as how good he thinks some other album is. His quip that Wilco is pandering to the “suits handling the band’s marketing” puts him as far away from that “multiethnic horde on the dance floor” as possible.

Which is weird criticism. Not all music, even from a band like Wilco, needs to tear down the status quo. Not all music needs to start a revolution.

And I think Wilco knows that. And it seems pretty clear to me that they’re more interested in simply making music than they are in blowing the socks off the Fuldauer’s of the world every time they release a new album. That says something. (Exactly what, I’ll admit, I’m not sure. But I think I like it!)

On the other hand, this album has some really good bits. Tweedy’s duet with Feist is actually quite beautiful, and the lyrics play on his familiar and somewhat twisted take on love (“You and I/We might be strangers/However close we get sometimes/It’s like we never met”). But it’s the following lyrics from “Solitaire” that will not doubt hit closest to home for some of my long-time readers. So I’ll leave you with this:

Once I thought the world was crazy
Everyone was sad and chasing
Happiness and love and
I was the only one above it

Once I thought without a doubt
I had it all figured out
Universe with hands unseen
I was cold as gasoline

Took too long to see
I was wrong to believe in me only

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