“This is a man with arms open wide/a sonic shoulder for you to cry,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Wilco (the song),” the lead-off track from the alt-rocker’s seventh proper LP. In what proves to be one hell of a bait-and-switch, Tweedy insists that despite the “knife in your back” or the “rough road” you may travel down, “Wilco will love you, baby.” Taken at face value, the lyric is a sweet (if blatantly easier-said-than-done) sentiment, and the sort of line that begs to be parroted back in concert.
So what’s the catch? Well, let’s just say Tweedy and Co. spend the next 40 minutes prompting you to cry on that shoulder of theirs…though only if you’re paying close enough attention.
For Wilco stalwarts, the irony shouldn’t be much of a surprise—Tweedy has long established himself as one of the premiere bittersweet songsmiths of the aughts. What’s particularly striking about Wilco (the album), rather, is how straightforward it feels. It’s Tweedy’s most musically tame effort since Being There (and yes, that includes Sky Blue Sky), despite being as emotionally pluming as some of the best cuts off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born.
And I’m no sentimentalist—I swoon over the experimentalism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as much the next nerd, but I’m not keen on holding the band hostage to itself. So let me be clear: Wilco (the album) isn’t a weak album because it’s straightforward—it’s weak because the music often fails to do Tweedy’s words and ideas justice.
“I’ll Fight” and “Country Disappeared,” for example, have some of album’s most striking lyrics, yet remain typified by generic, fill-in-the-blanks arrangements. In “Country Disappeared,” Tweedy criticizes the media’s exploitation of tragedies and subsequent enabling of mass rubbernecking (“So every evening we can watch from above/crushed cities like a bug”), yet it’s perhaps the easiest song to sit through mindlessly. “I’ll Fight,” similarly, points to the unacknowledged martyrdom of those willing to die for this country (in so many words), but chugs along lazily, easily forgotten amidst the flow of the album. I’m not arguing these songs should emulate “At Least That’s What You Said” (which features a raucous guitar representation of one of Tweedy’s storied panic attacks), but why sleep on such pointed material?
“Sonny Feeling,” for instance, demonstrates that Wilco can write a memorable, striking composition that’s still completely backwards (the “sunny feeling” of the song is “taken away” amidst one of the album’s catchiest choruses). The words of “One Wing” and “Bull Black Nova,” in turn, fit like slippers to the shape of their songs, the former with an impeccable chorus melody and the latter with some Noirish, staccato rhythms that intertwine beautifully.
Essentially, given the quality of Tweedy’s lyrics, some of the musical stoicism comes across as bit of a cop out. And, yes, such a critique is unfair because it’s mostly the listener’s job to pay attention, but most folks simply don’t read lyric-sheets anymore. Is it valid to reproach a songwriter for writing songs that are too subtle for their own good? Maybe.
“If the whole world’s singing your songs … just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on,” Tweedy sang on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. In other words, when “You and I” (the cutesy Tweedy/Feist collaboration that’s featured on Wilco) comes on in Starbucks for the sixth time next month, you really have no right to tell the customer humming behind you that maybe it’s not the happiest of love songs. Or, to put the matter in the loftiest of terms, the same principle allows “With or Without You” by U2 to be played at weddings and “YMCA” to be blasted in sports arenas. Sure, it’s amusing (and in the case of “YMCA,” refreshingly so), but what good does the ignorance do?
Head over to Wilco (the MySpace) to catch a glimpse of Wilco (The Album) with “You Never Know.”