“Wilco” is a five-letter word for the quiet slaughter of all that is elemental, passionate, and reverentially stupid about rock ‘n’ roll. Try finding a vein on a Wilco album. Oh, Wilco: middle-aged Midwesterners with stubble and suit jackets. Precise instrumentalists who make mushy, edgeless music. Two healthy guitarists who alternate featherlight solos with the sound of breeze and rustle. (The pussyfooters call this “atmospherics.” Whatever it is, it’s very tasteful.) Wilco: The Band That Rocks, Within Reason. Their peak party moments sound like a good time as described by someone who hasn’t actually had one. “I’m trying to balance fun with crushing depression,” frontman Jeff Tweedy once said onstage. “Always a challenge.” In this band, that’s a punch line. Is there anything dangerous about Jeff Tweedy? Is there anything dangerous about a pale father of two, comfortable in soft denim, mewling his way through a prescription-pill addiction with songs about how dishwashing just isn’t the same without his wife around?
History calls their earliest records, A.M. and Being There, “alt-country”—”country” because such a guise can sometimes make its wearers look more grizzled and wiser than they are; “alt-” because they wanted to look grizzled and wiser without being mistaken for two-bits, social conservatives, and/or drunk drivers. (That’s a slight to stereotypes, not country.) When Tweedy went to rehab, he managed to make it look polite.
I didn’t initially bother listening to their last two albums, 2004’s A Ghost Is Born and 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, because the preceding one, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was turgid and boring. Not awful—just turgid and boring. (It was also the kind of superficial great-leap-forward that inspires mind-numbing critical adulation: It won the Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll that year, received a Pitchfork 10.0, and became the new standard-bearer for American art-rock.) The boredom was something I’d come to expect: Wilco’s main selling point, after their bittersweetness, was that they were basically a safe ride. But high art seemed like an unnecessary turn from what was already wholesome and dependable. I wasn’t ready to hear what happened next.
What happened, it turns out, was that Wilco’s albums became less turgid and more boring. Sky Blue Sky was hyperbolically so: pale and gentle, the work of a shaky voice and steady hands. The band’s sound sighed and expanded—”country” came to mean something as loose and permeable as it did to the Grateful Dead or the Byrds. For an unfortunate spell, Tweedy appeared more focused on his production budget than on what the band produced. They mellowed—the vibrant, candied sounds of 1999’s Summerteeth were crushed and drained of pigment. (Most of this had to do with Tweedy being left to explore his own ass with his head after co-founder Jay Bennett—his muscular, earthy, and pop-friendly foil—was ushered out during the recording of Foxtrot. He later sued Tweedy, went to bed in late May 2009, and never woke up.)
But the changes to Wilco were mostly superficial. Apart from the addition of synthesizers and poetic verse, about half of Sky sounds a lot like half of Being There, which was recorded 11 years earlier. Tweedy remains eerily detached; the band, despite losing Bennett (among others) and gaining avant-garde mercenaries Nels Cline (on guitar) and Glenn Kotche (on drums), is restrained and careful. It’s still rock music in name only.
Now here’s Wilco (The Album), a title almost as disquietingly bland as the band. A tame, pleasant, weird little album. A friend (and bigger fan than I) thinks it’s like the sigh after the 12th step in the program—or, “Whatever the one is where you apologize for everything.” (That’s the ninth.) Here, the band remembers what they do best and shakes off most of what they don’t. Fewer solos than on Sky, nearly as much noise as on Foxtrot, and some of the belabored textures from Ghost, all in good measure. Tweedy sings about accepting limitations and the cruelty of high school kids. He sings about the ways relationships wane and dissolve. He trades some sweet licks with Cline. The band bucks a couple of times, hardest on “Bull Black Nova”—actually, it’s the hardest they’ve bucked on record since before Foxtrot.
The 11th step: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.” The key here is “God as we understood God.” Wilco finally seem to have gripped, firmly, what they’re good at: heavily supervised rock music with a little bit of grit, a few funny noises and production tricks, and enough bromides and nostalgia amid the poetry to make it hit, glancingly. God’s will for Wilco? Maybe it’s something like, “Give white people something to relax to.” There is no way in this beautiful world for me to object to that.
I didn’t understand what critics and friends meant when they said Wilco had “matured” because they sang about doing the dishes and mowing the lawn. Teenagers do the dishes and mow the lawn. But most teenagers aren’t relaxed. They don’t face their shortcomings. They could never see a relationship of ellipses and quiet misunderstandings as one worth having.
I also didn’t understand what critics and friends meant when they would say things like, “Wilco are the American Radiohead.” Wilco are not the American Radiohead. Wilco are maybe six weary Jackson Brownes. Or what sandblasted jeans would say if they could talk. Listening to Wilco is like finding a rainbow between gray and tan.I don’t love them for it, but I do respect them, more and more: for sucking the sentimentality out of nostalgia, for managing to never write a single truly happy song, for never writing a truly sad one, either. For never being sarcastic. For being almost spooky-earnest.
There’s an image I have of Jeff Tweedy I can’t shake. In it, he’s Wilson, Tim Allen’s neighbor on Home Improvement. I remember nothing about the show but Wilson—this inscrutable, all-knowing presence just beyond the backyard fence; the neighbor whose face you never see. Wilson seemed to talk to the world through a film. Apparently, he was born in Chicago. Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing. Jeff Tweedy sometimes wears a beard, but even when he doesn’t, I feel like I never see his face.
Wilco play Keyspan Park July 13 with Yo La Tengo