Jeff Tweedy was always the junior partner in the pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. When the group split into two factions, all indications were that Jay Farrar’s Son Volt would be the more consequential band. But after 1995’s A.M., multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco. Accordingly, their ambition and range expanded dramatically on the 1996 double album Being There. From that early peak, Wilco went from strength to strength, with the ornate pop of Summerteeth and the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg, putting music to unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics.
Sessions for 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were difficult, and the creative partnership between Tweedy and Bennett soured. The album was acclaimed as a masterpiece, with Tweedy’s emotive writing augmented by electronic effects, but the band that emerged at the end of the sessions were transformed; only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remained from the Being There lineup. 2004’s A Ghost Is Born was even more experimental, especially the 15 minute ‘Less Than You Think’, an aural representation of the migraines that Tweedy was experiencing.
Reviews for 2007’s Sky Blue Sky popularised the term “dad-rock’, and accordingly, it’s a much more subdued effort, although still impressively crafted. Since then, Wilco have continued creating albums that are less ambitious and less acclaimed than their peak years, while remaining worthwhile. They’ve also gained a reputation as a very good live act, with a stellar back catalogue and virtuoso members like guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche.
Wilco Album Reviews
A.M. | Being There | Mermaid Avenue (with Billy Bragg) | Summerteeth | Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (with Billy Bragg) | Yankee Hotel Foxtrot | A Ghost Is Born | Kicking Television: Live In Chicago | Sky Blue Sky | Wilco: The Album | The Whole Love | Star Wars | Schmilco
After Uncle Tupelo split up, Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco, recruiting his former bandmates, with the notable exception of leader Jay Farrar. Given the remarkable albums that followed it, A.M. is an inauspicious beginning; it’s nominally country rock, and the textural flavour comes from pedal steel and fiddle. It’s lighter in tone than Uncle Tupelo, sometimes veering into power pop, or sounding like The Replacements.
It’s unremarkable, but it’s enjoyable, punchy and fast-paced. ‘Box Full Of Letters’ and ‘Casino Queen’ are energetic and punchy, ‘Blue Eyed Soul’ is fragile and evocative like Neil Young, while ‘Passenger Side’ also employs the lonesome scratch in Tweedy’s voice to good effect.
A.M. is an unremarkable debut album, especially when compared to Jeff Tweedy’s obvious competition; Jay Farrar got Son Volt’s career off to an excellent start with Trace. But before Wilco’s next album, the band gained a new recruit who would help to move the band forward spectacularly.
Shortly after recording 1995’s A.M., multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco, a creative force who complemented Tweedy beautifully on Wilco’s early albums. While Being There retains a distinct country tinge, already Tweedy’s clearly shying away from the territory his former band explored; rather than the Black Flag/Carter Family hybrid that informed Uncle Tupelo, Being There is a sprawling double album that is steeped in rock and roll heritage.
As well as evoking classic rock groups, like The Band in the clavinet laden ‘Kingpin’ and The Rolling Stones in the closing ‘Dreamer In My Dreams’, the tracks that open each disc reference the redemptive yet hollow power of music: “Music is my savior/I was maimed by rock and roll” Tweedy sings in ‘Sunken Treasure’, while ‘Misunderstood’ drowns futility in music “Short on long term goals/There’s a party there that we ought to go to/If you still love rock and roll/You still love rock and roll?”
While Tweedy came across as the precocious kid brother to the ornery Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, given a double album to his own, he’s revealed as the sensitive, tortured male, obsessed with picking apart relationships. While there’s nothing here as extreme as the experiments on later Wilco albums, there’s plenty of textural variation with various forays into country and rock, while moments like the psychedelic introduction to ‘Misunderstood’ and the sudden piano outburst that closes ‘Red-Eyed And Blue’ do point the way to the future. And to balance introversion like the superlative ‘Say You Miss Me’ and the pensive ‘What’s The World Got In Store’, Tweedy also pulls out the breezy power pop of ‘I Got You (At The End Of The Century)’ and the brashy, horn-laden ‘Monday’.
Even above its emotional range and its appreciation of rock tradition, what really makes Being There outstanding is Tweedy’s ability to pull out memorable melodies and evocative words so consistently. While Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is arguably an even stronger record, that record’s also a triumph of studio craft; Being There showcases Tweedy as a great songwriter come into his own and putting forward his own double album, worthy to stand in the pantheon alongside the bands that inspired him.
Mermaid Avenue (with Billy Bragg)
Folk legend Woody Guthrie’s last recording was in 1947, but before his death in 1967 he wrote hundreds more songs. The music for these was never written down, so his daughter Nora approached British protest singer Billy Bragg, and persuaded him to write new music and record an album from Guthrie’s lyrics. Bragg enlisted the help of American alt-country band Wilco, resulting in Mermaid Avenue, named after the street in Brooklyn where Guthrie spent his post-war years.
As much as anything, the nostalgic Americana of the lyrics and the rustic feel recall The Band’s recordings; when Jeff Tweedy’s voice cracks during the mournful ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’, it’s evocative of Richard Manuel. Tweedy and Bragg share the lead vocals between them, and the contrast is effective; Tweedy’s voice is more supple and youthful than Bragg’s deadpan. They’re playing Guthrie at two different ages; Tweedy is the young idealist and Bragg the old and world-weary eccentric. Natalie Merchant takes lead vocals for the low key acoustic ‘Birds and Ships’, and adds harmonies to the lovely ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’, while English folkie Eliza Carthy guests on violin.
What makes Mermaid Avenue memorable is the range of moods explored; Guthrie’s lyrics lend themselves to diverse moods, from nursery rhymes (‘Hoodoo Voodoo’) and whimsy (‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, ‘Ingrid Bergman’), to social commentary (‘Christ for President’, ‘Eisler on the Go’) and poignant balladry (‘Another Man’s Done Gone’). It’s also consistent; some of the less serious efforts like ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, which makes a memorable but jarring start to the album, can be off-putting even though they form the soul of the album, but the ballads on this record are just plain gorgeous. ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’, ‘One By One’, ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’, and ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ are all beautiful.
Mermaid Avenue is a beautifully executed project and it rates highly in Wilco’s impressive back catalogue.
I was primed to love Summerteeth – it was my first Wilco album, and I bought it at the beginning of summer, just after a root canal. Where Being There was a trawl through classic rock, this tends far more towards classic pop, with a previously undisclosed influence from Brian Wilson and there are very few traces of country. It’s also the most Jay Bennett dominated Wilco album, with lots of vintage keyboards layered on.
Unfortunately, this isn’t as intriguing as it sounds – Summerteeth lacks the energy and rawness of Being There, and it’s only really given any edge by the narcissistic lyrics (“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me” is the opening line of ‘Via Chicago’). The emotional weight is less apparent here with the glossy arrangements.
Summerteeth opens with a trio of great songs; ‘I Can’t Stand It’ is pretty has a crisp organ attack and memorable chorus (“It’s my love/I can’t stand it/I can’t stand it”), ‘She’s A Jar’ is moody and gorgeous, and ‘A Shot In The Arm’ is desperate in its empathy (“The ashtray says/You were up all night”). Orchestration is used to great effect in ‘Pieholden Suite’, which breaks down into a pretty horn section. Overall, though, there’s too much snoozy material, even if most individual pieces are excellent, and the net effect can be wearying, a situation not helped by the fact that of the few rockers, ‘Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)’ and ‘ELT’ seem interchangeable.
Summerteeth does reward repeated listening – these songs are well constructed, and often fascinating – but it just doesn’t have the immediate visceral appeal of most of Wilco’s other records.
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (with Billy Bragg)
The forgotten record in the Wilco canon, Mermaid Avenue II feels like too obvious of a repeat of the first volume, right down to the Natalie Merchant cameo on a simple acoustic track. It’s rougher and more rock-oriented than the first album, and it has enough strong songs to make it a worthwhile project. Most of Tweedy’s songs are strong, and it’s Bragg’s material that’s the problem – his melodies generally aren’t as memorable as Tweedy’s, and sometimes he’s left to bellowing as demonstrated on ‘Meanest Man’.
While it feels like Tweedy could have written something similar in spirit to songs like ‘Another Man’s Done Gone’ or ‘California Stars’ on the first album, it’s fascinating to hear the archetypal confessional songwriter take on another voice here, whether he’s celebrating Americana in ‘Joe DiMaggio Done It Again’ or singing Christian lyrics (“I’m, all clean/I’m all spotless/I’m all pure like them snows/I’m all washed in the blood of the lamb”).
There’s at least one total masterpiece here, the lengthy ‘Remember The Mountain Bed’, where Guthrie’s metaphysical, sexual lyrics (“All this day long I linger here and on in through the night/My greeds, desires, my cravings, hopes and dreams inside me fight”) are matched perfectly by a pretty folk melody and subtly climactic arrangement. ‘Secrets Of The Sea’ is catchy, heading towards power-pop territory, while one-man-band Bennett plays upright bass and drums on the elegiac closer ‘Someday Some Morning Sometime.”
Of Bragg’s compositions, guest vocalist Corey Harris does a terrific job on the ludicrously satirical ‘Aginst Th’ Law’ (“It’s against th’ law to shoot/It’s against th’ law to miss”), while Bragg’s enthusiastic take on ‘All You Fascists’ is similarly effective. Bragg also delivers with a masterful solo acoustic performance on the mournful ‘Black Wind Blowing’.
If you liked the first Mermaid Avenue, this one’s well worth hearing too; it lacks the wide-eyed vitality and unified tone of its prequel, but song for song it’s not really that far behind.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has quite a chequered back story – it was initially rejected by Wilco’s record label, Reprise, who deemed it too non-commercial. It was eventually released on Nonesuch Records, who like Reprise are a Time Warner subsidiary, meaning that in effect Time Warner paid for the album twice. If that’s not complicated enough, the band was self-destructing at the same time, with tensions caught in the movie I Am Trying To Break Your Heart leading to the departure of Jay Bennett and Ken Coomer from the band. The ego clashes between Bennett and Tweedy were particularly significant, with Bennett assuming an ever-larger role, taking co-writing credits on eight of the eleven songs and leading the band further into electronic territory. Producer Jim O’Rourke, despite his avant-garde pedigree as a member of Sonic Youth and solo artist, actually ended up toning down the record’s more experimental moments.
Wilco at their most experimental are hardly difficult listening. If anything Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is more accessible than their previous two records – shorter than Being There and more coherent than Summerteeth – it just has a few more beeping noises than those records did. Despite the band’s less organic approach, their strengths remain the same; Tweedy’s neuroses and pretty melodies are more effective in these brooding soundscapes than in the poppy sheen of Summerteeth.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot starts with the wavering ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, with the cryptic opening line “I am an American aquarium drinker”, leading shakily through one finger keyboard solos and collapsing under a wall of static. Meanwhile, the catchiest material is pushed to the third quarter of the album, with the bouncy ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’, which feels like a late sixties Beatles track, down to the guitar tone and primitive riff. Honours for best song on a terrific album go to ‘Poor Places’, which suddenly loses its building tensions as it opens out into the record’s most memorable lines (“And it makes no difference to me/How they cried all over overseas”). Some vestiges of country remain with ‘Jesus, etc’, where a country fiddle provides the texture.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is perfectly sequenced, and enhanced by its creative effects and production; even the uneventful four-minute wind down on ‘Reservations’ is important to the shape of the album. The crown jewel in Wilco’s impressive back-catalogue, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot thoroughly deserves its status as one of the strongest albums to emerge in the 21st century.
A Ghost Is Born
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was essentially a conventional Wilco album with some sound effects and production tricks; A Ghost Is Born is more extreme, spiralling off into lengthy guitar jams and an even lengthier drone. With most of the original Wilco members gone, there’s almost a completely new band here; Tweedy and Stirratt are joined by O’Rourke, drummer Glenn Kotche, and keyboardists Leroy Bach and Mikael Jorgensen, giving the band even more of a synthetic feel.
There are obvious flaws on this record, and it’s far more uneven than the tightly constructed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but most of the difficult spots are due to Tweedy’s perversity rather than any lack of creativity; most notably ‘Less Than You Think’, which is basically three minutes of gentle song followed by twelve minutes of droning, used by Tweedy to represent his constant migraines.
Despite these flaws, it’s still Wilco’s most interesting and creative effort. I can listen to ‘Company In My Back’ obsessively and still hear something new each time; the piercing bass lines, the way Tweedy’s voice reaches the high notes on “I will always die/I will always die, so you can remember me,” the staccato jabs that leads into each chorus, and the shower of notes that kicks in after each chorus. To balance out the obsessive studio craft, some of the songs also tend toward lengthy Neil Young-like guitar jams, with Tweedy showcasing his much-improved guitar skills on the 10-minute ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ and ‘At Least That’s What You Said’. The defining characteristic of this album is ambiguity, and the appeal of these songs is their cryptic nature.
Apart from the conclusion to ‘Less Than You Think’, the abrasive ‘I’m A Wheel’ is the other problematic track. But the other ten songs are terrific; the understated ‘Muzzle Of Bees’ ghosts by on a wispy guitar riff, the oblique ‘Hell Is Chrome’ utilises Tweedy’s gorgeous falsetto, the opening ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ builds from reflective piano to chaotic guitar soloing from Tweedy, while ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ locks into an intense guitar riff. ‘The Late Greats’ is a surprising coda to the album, a straightforward and nostalgic statement of rock fandom (“The best songs will never get sung/The best life never leaves your lungs”).
A Ghost Is Born isn’t as tightly constructed as Wilco’s strongest albums, but it still ranks as their most fascinating effort to date, and it’s the one I feel like pulling off the shelf the most often.
Kicking Television: Live In Chicago
Recorded in Wilco’s hometown, the live double album Kicking Television documents the best from four consecutive Wilco gigs. There are two reasons why a Wilco live album would be worth hearing; firstly, the current lineup is almost completely changed from the group that recorded their first three albums, with less of an alt-country influence, so any new interpretations are inevitably going to be markedly different. Secondly, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born are such studio based albums that any live version is inevitably going to be rawer and less ornate.
The set-list is focused on the latter, covering 3/4 of A Ghost Is Born and 2/3 of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, throwing in a bit of earlier material, although the closest the band get to their alt-country roots are the takes on ‘One By One’ and ‘Airline to Heaven’ from Mermaid Avenue II. I’m not usually too fussed on live albums, but I’m so fond of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born that I’m more than happy to hear alternate versions of most of the songs.
Highlights include the opening ‘Misunderstood’, the guitar jams of ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ and ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ and the cover of Charles Wright’s ‘Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)’ which closes the set. The only other song not to appear on a proper studio record is the title track, a Ghost Is Born b-side, and it’s disappointing, but pretty much the only song here that’s not terrific.
I’d still grab the studio albums first, but if you love them, Kicking Television is an enjoyable appendix.
Sky Blue Sky
Sky Blue Sky famously spawned the term “dad-rock” – after the adventurous A Ghost Is Born, it’s a surprisingly subdued record. While Uncle Tupelo were defiantly part of the post-punk/alternative mindset, Sky Blue Sky takes many of its cues from pre-punk influences, like The Band, Van Morrison, and Steely Dan.
There is some genuinely terrific material on Sky Blue Sky, despite the subdued sound; ‘Impossible Germany’ evolves from an elegant melody into a great guitar workout, almost reminiscent of Television with the angular soloing over a weird riff. ‘Hate It Here’ showcases the dual keyboardists’ chops with its jazzy grooves, as Tweedy delivers memorable lines like “What am I gonna do when I run out of lawn to mow?” ‘You Are My Face’ showcases the new line-up’s capabilities for tight interplay and weird riffs, while the last two songs are charming and low key.
‘Walken’ hits a nice guitar riff intermittently but isn’t that memorable otherwise, while the climax of ‘Shake It Off’ just isn’t as thrilling as the lengthy workouts like ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ on A Ghost Is Born. Likewise, some of the slower stuff isn’t particularly exciting either; songs like ‘Please Be Patient With Me’ and ‘Leave Me Like You Found Me’ just don’t have strong enough vocal melodies to connect, even if they’re emotional and sincere.
Sky Blue Sky is a very controlled, disciplined record and it’s a worthy enough addition to Wilco’s catalogue, but it was the band’s least notable album for quite some time.
Wilco (The Album)
It’s a little surprising to see Wilco suddenly become self-referential on their seventh studio album – not only is the album self-titled, but it even begins with a self-titled song, the refrain of which is “Wilco will love you, baby.” Wilco (The Album) was recorded in Neil Finn’s New Zealand studio. It’s lighter in tone than most of Wilco’s records, and less unified. It’s enjoyable, but at the same time it often feels like it feels short of Wilco’s high standards, and I’d probably appreciate it more if it wasn’t for their impressive back catalogue.
Wilco (The Album) does have its moments – ‘Bull Black Nova’ is an excellent guitar epic, while the duet with Leslie Feist – ‘You And I’ – is pretty and memorable. There’s also pretty material in the second half, like ‘Solitaire’ and ‘Everlasting Everything’.
Wilco (The Album) feels unfocused and lightweight compared to Wilco’s previous triumphs, and it’s their most dispensable album since A.M..
The Whole Love
After a couple of worthy, but lacklustre, efforts, Wilco rebounded with The Whole Love. The seven-minute opener ‘Art of Almost’ is atmospheric and groovy, and sets the tone for Wilco’s most ambitious album for quite some time, while closer ‘One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)’ is a pretty acoustic song that maintains its moody feel for 12 minutes.
In between the epic opener and closer, there’s plenty of good material; ‘Dawned On Me’ is hooky and urgent. ‘Open Mind’ is a pretty acoustic song with a hint of country that would have fitted on Being There, while ‘Black Moon’ and ‘Rising Red Lung’ are also beautiful. The more urgent feel and more expansive songs give more scope for frenzied Nel Cline guitar, adding intensity to tracks like ‘Born Alone’.
The Whole Love doesn’t quite recapture the restless, creative streak that Wilco enjoyed during their first decade, but it’s the best effort from their second decade as a band, and a good starting point to explore their later catalogue.
Wilco self-released Star Wars for free through their website in 2015. This confusingly titled album features a cat on the cover and has nothing to do with the popular space opera movie franchise. After the ambitious The Whole Love, Star Wars is a brief, stripped back, lo-fi, guitar-heavy album, and it’s different from anything the band have done before, almost like it’s their return to basics album.
The songs are largely forgettable – it seems like an excuse to throw together some energetic, guitar-focused songs that would be fun to play live. ‘Taste The Ceiling’ is pretty and low key, but it feels like the kind of song that Wilco’s already written half a dozen times. With three minute average running times, a lot of these songs don’t stick around long enough to make an impact, and even the best songs are merely serviceable like the crunchy rock of ‘King Of You’.
Star Wars is a lower-tier Wilco album, easily dispensable in their excellent discography, but it’s difficult to quibble too much about a free download.
Ten Favourite Wilco Songs
Remember The Mountain Bed
Company In My Back
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Can’t Stand It
Bull Black Nova
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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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