Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch Records)
By: Stan Hall
With its fourth album of wholly original music, Wilco continues an artistic trajectory that every band hopes for, but rarely achieves: Each new album has been better than the one that preceded it.
The band began as a straightforward country-rock project of Jeff Tweedy, who was once considered, though it's now hard to believe, the lesser songwriting half early 90's alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. Ex-partner Jay Farrar's post-Uncle Tupelo project, Son Volt, got far more critical attention at the time Wilco's 1995 debut "AM," an likable work of modest, fairly prosaic ambition, was released to mild effect.
Wilco's two-CD sophomore effort, 1996's "Being There," announced Tweedy's arrival as a major songwriter, and his new musical collaborator Jay Bennett helped him push Wilco's sound into a hard-to-define, fascinating soup of bleary-eyed country, rousing rockers and affecting balladry, with arrangements that were totally modern, yet had a sense of the history of rustic American music.
Tweedy and company then took a detour, collaborating with populist English folkie Billy Bragg on 1998's "Mermaid Avenue," a collection of original music set to never-before-published Woody Guthrie lyrics. Not only was the album (and, to a lesser extent, its second volume, released in 2000) a big critical and commercial success, Wilco's association with the Guthrie name gave the band a major cache of credibility that seemed to free Tweedy of the alt-country tag he'd been saddled with since Uncle Tupelo. Wilco was free to find its muse, and the band's third album of original music, 1999's "Summer Teeth," eclipsed even the high standard set by "Being There." This sprawling near-masterpiece took the template of that album and added even more surprises: feedback, oscillating synths, Brian Wilson-esque song structures and a noticeable cutback in, if not total abandonment of, the types of sounds associated with country music.
Now, after much overrated media hype about the band's battle with the Time Warner/AOL behemoth over the commercial viability of its new songs (after all, they left Reprise Records for Nonesuch, which is simply a smaller subsect of the same corporate giant), we are presented with "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which has launched Wilco into near-superstar levels of popularity in its first few weeks of official release. The suits at Time Warner/AOL were so wrong about the cash-register potential of this one, you almost wonder if it was all a grand publicity stunt. The album's popularity is the result not of a stylistic left turn, but rather a summation, and improvement upon, of everything Wilco has accomplished to this point.
As great as "Summerteeth" is, the new album is more economical and more single-minded in its purpose, yet more stylistically varied. Each track occupies its own little universe, sounding great both individually and within the context of a larger framework. And many songs have moments that almost overwhelm with their quiet enormity.
"Jesus, etc.," the most affecting track, has an understated, Fleetwood Mac-esque rhythm, beautifully fluttering fiddles and a perfect Tweedy vocal that both portends doom and declares romantic devotion. "Tall buildings shake/Voices escape, singing sad, sad songs/Two, two chords/Strung down your cheeks, bitter melodies, turning your orbit around." The lyrics are vague enough that people could have them stand for about anything -- a significant other, a newborn child, the victims of 9/11 -- and it's all equally meaningful. That's the mark of a great lyricist, and Tweedy has enough of these lines on "YHF" to make more inscrutable songs like the quizzical, darkly funny "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" ("Take off your Band-Aid 'cause I don't believe in touchdowns") seem less like twaddle and more like verse with purpose, whether they mean anything to him or not.
Musically, the best thing about Wilco is how it makes simple chord progressions and melodies sound complex through imaginative arrangements. "Kamera" is built on a simple drumbeat, an elementary chord progression and a catchy little string of keyboard notes. It's all perfectly uncluttered, accessible and, like a lot of these songs, realizes a profundity that belies its fairly modest construction. "War on War" sports a wall of acoustic guitars, a nearly percussive, mantra-like vocal hook, and then on the chorus a release punctuated by some ethereal keyboard drizzles (if twinkling stars make noise, it must sound something like this).
A great blast of Neil Young-ian guitar opens and closes "I'm the Man Who Loves You," a charming rocker packed with lots of Memphis soul and some terrific horns, and "Pot Kettle Black," which brings back the pedal steel from the days of "AM," manages to sound like a great collaboration between "Head on the Door"-era Cure and Elliott Smith. Much of this is very sophisticated, but wonderfully heartfelt and honest and never alienating, even when a track like "Poor Places" segues from an acoustic guitar and (inventive) piano ballad into a wall of feedback and squawked repeats of the album's title.
Not everything here is perfect. "Radio Cure," the third track, nearly brings the album to a halt with a dirge-y pace and a generally dour presentation that doesn't begin to perk up until the hook arrives more than three minutes in. And the peppy "obvious single," "Heavy Metal Drummer," sounds cluttered, powered by a crap drum machine, its lyrics and delivery a little too reminiscent of Pavement's "Cut Your Hair." But these hardly-dismal songs are really just victims of the excellence that surrounds them, and hold out hope of improving with time and reflection.
Before "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" floats out on three minutes of "Kid A"-like ambience, Tweedy sings, "I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you." While there are definitely reservations about Wilco's continued artistic excellence -- chiefly, whether co-producer Jim O'Rourke can assume the multi-instrumental/arranging role so effectively filled by the recently departed Jay Bennett -- right now, the Wilco universe is in full bloom.