Rock and roll history is dominated by eccentrics, assholes, weirdos, pimps, players, con men, junkies, beautiful losers, geniuses, poseurs. Sometimes, though, the pantheon makes room for folks like Jeff Tweedy, who reminds me of dozens of lost souls I met at college in the Midwest, unassuming white people who dressed like gas station attendants and took English Lit classes because they didn’t know what else to do. His tendency to wax melancholy when he reflects on his life is a pretty normal thing for a suburban kid. That’s no reason to believe he ought to be working in a bookstore or something, but as a singer and songwriter he sure as shit doesn’t get by on personality, and only girls who’re gonna be won over by his tunes anyway would find his stubble-and-buttondown unkemptitude sexually appealing. There’s no psychodrama playing out inside his head, although he wouldn’t mind if you thought there was. He writes from the vantage of a sensitive modern folkie with a jones for both old-school sincerity and fractured indie romanticism. He mopes pretty, rocks slackly, and shoots for a low-key, ineffable poignancy. Not for nothing is the leadoff track of his band’s new full-length called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
Obviously, this semi-depressed whiteboy aesthetic goes back much further than Jeff Tweedy, to Brian Wilson and beyond, but among the hundreds of albums that’ll emote vis-à-vis some kind of indie sensibility this year, Wilco’s is probably the only one that’ll break out of the bedroom in a big way. The story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is itself a would-be heartbreaker—”would-be” not only because the album is finally being released this month on Nonesuch but also because by now the story has been repeated so often it’s turned into a minor alt-rock myth. Coupled with a vaguely classicist sound that just may find the expressway to your inner lullaby, it stands a good chance of being remembered as a magnum opus of the semi-popular, maybe even replacing the Replacements’ Let It Be as the token indie fave on the next VH1 greatest-of-all-time thingy.
The long and short of it is that Reprise—for whom Wilco’s three previous discs had moved between 112,000 and 200,000 units stateside and an average of 500,000 worldwide—got a whiff of the album’s more lysergic stylings and asked Tweedy and company to re-record some songs. The band refused to change a note, so the label refused to release it—and then dropped Wilco, selling them the master tapes for a modest $50,000. While entertaining offers from multiple labels, Wilco streamed the entirety of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from its Web site, and thousands who heard it there or downloaded it elsewhere fell in love with not only the record but also its back story. Predictably, there ensued many dewy-eyed write-ups and conceits about artists as corporate victims, to wit: “It’s telling of the state of the music industry circa 2001 that the most extraordinary album out of the hundreds that I heard this year was rejected by the artists’ label and available only as a free download via the Internet.”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is basically a good album, even a great album if you’re in the mood, though if you listen to a lot of hip-hop (or house music or basement bhangra or any other genre not dominated by white people), it probably won’t be the most extraordinary album you’ll hear all month. As for this whole “artistically challenging” bit—I dunno. YHF sounds pretty inviting for an album that’s led more than one Net writer to call Wilco the “American Radiohead.” Even when they’re bathed in quasi-psychedelia or bogged down by hooded-sweatshirt insularity, Tweedy’s songs are melodic, warm, earnest.
A forerunner here is Big Star’s Sister Lovers, whose back story is also full of record-company fuckups and long-delayed release dates, and which also cast its depression in cathedral-sized proto-indie sonics (“Kangaroo,” in fact, sounds like the spiritual inspiration if not the actual sonic blueprint for half the songs). But where Alex Chilton’s outlook was doggedly bleak if not goddamn suicidal, Tweedy’s depression is small, manageable, and pretty much seems to coexist healthily with the rest of his suburban life. Which on the one hand is annoying because why the fuck is he so fixated on bad memories, on mythologizing or simply not getting over his own past? But which also means there’s room for a lot of non-depressed points of reference—early-’70s country-rock, mostly (American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, say, maybe because there’s a little Jerry Garcia in Tweedy’s usually affectless voice), plus indie-folkie stuff that’s more about prettiness than pathos. There’s even room for a wonderfully slack folk-rocker and a Kiss nostalgia song almost as good as the one on the first Weezer record.
There’s no denying YHF‘s sonic achievements, and here’s where the Radiohead comparison makes sense. Feedback, bells, whistles, alarm clocks, found noise, plus great globules of piano, organ, and other drones carve out an atmospheric space wherein Tweedy can go to work on your heartstrings, or simply indulge himself. The quasi-psychedelia, less an acid trip than a Vicodin buzz, carries the stamp of Chicago indie vet Jim O’Rourke, who mixed the album and who despite a noise-rock pedigree seems to have been the perfect collaborator for Wilco circa 2002. Tweedy’s songs are grounded and basically simple; all this other stuff fleshes them out mighty well. What’s more, you’ll find a lot more “meaning”—insight qua mood, at least—in these soundscapes than you’ll find in Tweedy’s abstractions about needing to “learn how to die/If you wanna be alive.”
And yet Tweedy ultimately writes his own epitaph, or maybe it’s just a footnote: “I’ve got reservations.” Hey, me too. I like his album even though it reminds me too much of being stuck in Michigan, doing my best to keep the real world at bay. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the title refers to some kind of shortwave radio cum interpersonal disconnection metaphor, but metaphor or no, there’s no point in parsing hokum like “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue/I’m running out in the big city blinking/What was I thinking when I let go of you?” If Tweedy were a painter this’d be as close to surrealism as he gets. But he’s a would-be miniaturist too preoccupied with pretending everyday melancholia is more meaningful than it is. And so he fills his canvases with swaths of heartfelt pre-punk green, big patches of confessional folkie crimson, and deep pools of dark blue stoned male pathos. If you know the hues, you know the tunes. For Jeff Tweedy these abstractions are borne back ceaselessly into his own past, and his great trick is making you give a shit, if only a little.
Wilco play the Bowery Ballroom April 25.