Thursday, September 8, 2011

Album Review: The Whole Love - Wilco

"It's no fun getting old."

That pearl of wisdom was one that my Nana always loved to trot out when I was a kid. It seemed like a weighty statement then (certainly a complaint above my pay grade) but I always responded in the same way, "Yeah, but it beats the alternative."

Wilco is getting old and I don't say that as an insult, but as a statement of fact. The band members are all solidly in their forties and they've gone from upstarts to innovators to elder statesmen. I have no problem with stability, but it does raise some interesting questions for a band that was long-known for shape-shifting between every album and always staying one step ahead of its audience.

Their most recent full length, 2009's Wilco (The Album), was the first album where Tweedy and Co. seemed to be retracing their steps a little bit and served more as a songbook of their earlier styles than a new direction. It showed that the band was aces technically (the first four songs proved that) but might not know where to go creatively now that it had its first semi-permanent lineup and it's leader had gotten himself healthy. Given all that, there was bound to be tremendous pressure on the next album to show whether Wilco (The Album) was a one-off nostalgia fest or the beginning of a new chapter for the band.

So now that we've had it for almost a week can we finally say for sure whether The Whole Love is a bold new direction or another rehash project? Yes...ish.
My first listen to The Whole Love was wonderful, if for no other reason than I didn't have to play the name-the-era game with each song the way I did in 2009 (for example, "Bull Black Nova" = "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" + "Via Chicago"). This is an album with its own sonic vision which can been seen right from track one, "Art Of Almost." Many are comparing this song with A Ghost Is Born's "At Least That's What You Said," which is fair in that they're both long guitar freakouts. But "Almost" sounds like no Wilco before it, with burbling electronics and a more muddled, almost lo-fi production that shoves the drums into the background, bumps John Stiratt's bass and gives Nels Cline raging guitar a totally new sound. The song's placement and length (7:17) is clearly meant to announce to the world that this is a fresh new chapter for the band.

And, more often than not, The Whole Love does live up to that promise. Lead single "I Might" offers more lo-fi bliss with a fuzz-bass tone that splits the difference between "Think For Yourself" and Dave Lerner circa Hearts Of Oak. Tweedy one-ups "You Never Know" and it's pop savvy with the sure-to-be-live-favorite "Dawned On Me" and the band sounds as ripping as it's been since "Kicking Television" on "Standing O" which boasts a savage double-guitar and synth attack. Nobody does Wilco better than Wilco, especially when they're giving you a Wilco you've never heard before.

Much of the previous album was recorded in New Zealand with Tweedy and other band members laying down the basic tracks and avant-jazz guitar wizard Nels Cline overdubbing his parts later, diminishing his presence on tape. This wasn't a problem on The Whole Love (a more collaborative, loft-centered album than its predecessor), as Nels' guitar is all over the record, although not in an incarnation that you're familiar with. Gone are the sleek, glassy leads of Sky Blue Sky, replaced by a crackly, splintered lines that run over, under and occasionally side-by-side with the main melody. There's none of the friendly guitar interplay that made "Side With The Seeds" and "Impossible Germany" so irresistible. Instead Tweedy seems happy to let the band play his songs while Cline messes around in the sandbox behind him. Combined with the diminished drum presence, this creates an often odd juxtaposition of lo-fi buzzy anger being hidden by a poppy facade. This tension serves songs like "Dawned On Me," "I Might" and the Emily Dickenson-inspired "Born Alone" quite well.
Just as "Art Of Almost" begins the album by announcing its arty intentions, its bookend track "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" is no less a statement-of-purpose for the album's other mood of acoustic chamber pop. (Before I move on, let me also just also say that you should be reading her, not this right now). Tweedy has long been giving solo acoustic shows, but for years the mostly acoustic numbers were left for B-Sides and EPs. Since that taboo was broken by Sky Blue Sky's "Please Be Patient With Me," these songs, along with tasteful instrumental accents have come to the forefront in Wilco records.

Photo via openeye
This softer approach yields more mixed results. "Sunloathe" has, so far for me, been an early-album momentum killer with it's pleasant lyrics and production that seems almost tasteful to a fault. "Rising Red Lung" acquits itself well enough as a spooky, finger-picked folk song and "Open Mind" is a upbeat pop number that serves perfectly as a vehicle for a sunny monogamy-aided endorphin shot from Tweedy. However, the format truly shines on "Black Moon" whose title and chord progression can't help but bring to mind the his Uncle Tupelo classic, "Black Eye." Wilco's long-running Beatles fetish also pops up on the bouncy "Whole Love" and the "Penny Lane" meets "Far Far Away" separation song, "Capitol City." (Although as Simpsons devotees, I'm sure Wilco was also giving a friendly wink to this).

But even after listening to The Whole Love once again, I have to say that there's something about the sonics of this record that make me think that it will be a grower. There's a muddy, far-off production quality on both the loud and the soft songs that beckons you in for repeated listenings and closer consideration. The boys had years in the loft to hide goodies and tweak lyrics and experience has shown me that Wilco know how to do just that. The way my ears strain to catch Nels' lead lines buried under the band in "Dawned On Me" or separate the swooning lap steel from the keyboards in "Rising Red Lung" tells me that I'm by no means done with these songs.

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks but, as The Whole Love shows us, that doesn't mean that it can't teach you a few.


Dawned On Me - Wilco
Black Moon - Wilco
Standing O - Wilco

Wilco will give you free songs if you pre-order on either Vinyl or CD as well as a chance to win even more free schwag!

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