What is Wilco? Wilco is Jeff Tweedy, the bass player, John Stirratt, and a revolving door of other musicians. Since each album has a slightly different lineup of players, Jeff and John’s job is to keep a consistency going. They’ve managed to do this partly because Jeff is a great songwriter. It is his lyrics that are the through line for Wilco. I venture to say Jeff Tweedy is the greatest living songwriter who is not Bob Dylan.
Wilco can be sonically adventurous. At their best, they take the same path that the Beatles took four decades ago: their love of playing and experimenting shows through on each track, making the albums as much fun to hear the fiftieth time as they were the first.
Which is why I was excited to hear the band’s seventh album, Wilco (the album).
Now that I’ve completely sabotaged any credibility by comparing Wilco to the Beatles, I’m going to make another comparison. Wilco (the album) is a late-period self-titled album in the same way that The White Album (The Beatles) was for the Beatles. Unlike The White Album, The Album is a more focused, joyful affair. The White Album did indeed have its happy songs, but overall the tone was much more somber. The white cover stood for emptiness rather than light, and while the Beatles were not nihilistic, they took that sprawling double album to question the meaning of just about every musical genre and in the process, life itself.
Like Sky Blue Sky before it, The Album doesn’t mess around with sound effects or eerie interludes. It just sounds like a band playing together. The layered sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born is not evident here. This is music meant to be played live.
The Album is also not a return to anybody’s roots. This is not Uncle Tupelo. If anything, Jeff Tweedy the folk singer asserts himself, while Wilco the studio band takes a backseat.
Wilco (the song) kicks things off, justifying the earnest silliness of the birthday camel on the cover.
Deeper Down is one of Jeff’s signature songs about music and the music business. One of his recurring themes in songwriting is the strange dichotomy of making art and selling art. Of course he’s for making a living; he doesn’t see the point in making something nobody wants to hear. But he also wants to say something, to be meaningful. Why those two things rarely overlap is a question for another post, but if you want Jeff’s answer you should listen to this, and to The Late Greats from A Ghost is Born, and to What Light from Sky Blue Sky.
You and I is a straightforward love song, a duet sung with Feist. It’s got some neat lyrics. I like it because it’s cute and I’m a sucker for that stuff.
You Never Know is, right now, my favorite song on the album. Upbeat and full of Tweedy witticisms. It doesn’t get better than this in a four minute song.
Solitaire sounds like it belongs in the quiet middle section of A Ghost is Born – right between the song about bees and the other song about trucks, or whatever. Yeah, Jeff is definitely clean now.
I could go on about The Album, but this is probably enough. It’s always great to have another Wilco album in the world, and even better when that album is a good one. The Album is one of the good ones. Go listen.