My initial response to this record was one of mild dismay, the songs seemed perversely stained with sonics, particularly discordant guitar and one wondered if Wilco’s main man Jeff Tweedy really had take one left turn too many. Eventually though over time the more sense the record made until almost the whole record made sense. Almost.
Tweedy’s history is well documented from his days in Alt Country pioneers Uncle Tupelo till the surprise Wilco hit album Hotel Yankee Foxtrot which eerily connected with post 911 sentiments in the USA despite being written before the horrific event. This new record again recruited Jim O’Rourke on a playing and recording side, the avant garde boy wonder taking time out from his stint in Sonic Youth to assist. The effect overall is a different ,more challenging but ultimately more rewarding record than it’s predecessor.
As for the production itself I think it is exceptional, very controlled dynamic and full, the bass digs deep and the acoustic instruments breathe well, the subtle effects are handled with aplomb and it never gets in the way of the music even when the music gets in the way of itself. Tweedy recently stated if you played all his songs back to back on acoustic guitar they wouldn’t sound that different and yet each Wilco album sounds re mark ably different in essence and this clearly has moments where deconstruction is on his mind.
The opening track At Least That’s What You Said highlights the shift in Wilco’s sound, a whispering Tweedy vocal over piano is shattered by a rock staccato break and then Tweedy’s first distorted guitar solo, it’s clear his intent is to convey emotion with sound as much as with lyrics indeed the guitar break that initially seems too distorted, too edgy finally settles in your brain and becomes a key element of the song.
Hell Is Chrome follows, a piano and organ driven number, Tweedy delivers a very Lennonesque vocal on the “come with me” line, a melodic and darkly soulful song.Spiders (Kidsmoke) is ten minutes of speedy percussive grooving cut up with another staccato break that is reminiscent of the opener until Tweedy’s paranoid tale really pulls itself apart in the final two minutes.
The album has a very non-symmetrical feel in terms of running order and the next seven tracks are much less challenging on the whole and more conventional in structure and composition.
Muzzle Of Bees is closer to their country roots but is underpinned by some delicate and lovely piano; indeed it’s a feature of the simpler songs on the album that the arrangements feature subtle complexities. Hummingbird reveals Tweedy’s knack for constructing mood changes and melody and echoes the pop sensibilities of both Brian Wilson and Beatles with a dash of his oblique lyrics, the song has a viola led coda.
Handshake Drugs is a brilliant mid-paced affair which features a tale from the dark side of town.The next three songs show the more tuneful ,lightweight aspect of Wilco albeit in different styles the slow Wishful Thinking is a little sugary as the odd song of their can be, Company In My Back works well and the Punk Pop of I’m A Wheel has a charm that carries it off.
Lyrically the album finds Tweedy for the most part in dark places, a tad cynical, sometimes paranoid it would be easy to deduct his inspiration came from his then addiction to pain killers as a result of a long term migraine problem.
Whilst the record sounds troubled at times with relationship problems and fear of the modern world, it is not overwrought, the lyrics sometimes impenetrable due to their slight nature indicate whispered hints rather than painful howls and he has a crafty touch of making seemingly abstract constructed phrases sound just right in the context of the music.The best example would be Theologians a rant against man made religious constraints where the simple lyrics evoke a resolute defiant and surviving spirit, set against the albums strongest tune it is the highlight of the record.
The final cut The Late Greats adds some levity to proceedings with its ironic take on the modern music business or the pretensions of artists depending on how you read the song.It’s clearly intentional as a bookend because despite this probably being my favourite Wilco record it does have some serious flaws.
Spiders is arguably three minutes too long and the derailing of the song is too painful for my ears however it is the 15 minute Less Than You Think that is the albums most controversial moment. A nice enough song for the first 4 minutes or so the following 11 minutes is an electronic drone, whilst I listen to a lot of Electronica, in this context, on this record it doesn’t work, yes it is ghostly but it reeks of aimless indulgence.
This is also a record slightly less than the sum of its parts, it doesn’t quite flow as an album and arguably editing both the more extreme and lightweight material might have made it a more focused listen.However picking a few tracks at random strangely contradicts this view as song after song comes across strongly, the result is a desire to sit through the whole record, work that out.
This is a challenging listen on some tracks, on others the impact is obvious and eventually it opens itself up to indicate whatever hype surrounds Wilco, it is for the most part justified.If you open your mind and persevere it’s a record full of rewarding songs and successful sounds and will rightfully been seen as one of 2004’s most important and best releases.
© Ben Campbell
The record is pressed on a double 180grm LP set by nonesuch. Its housed in a gatefold album with inner picture paper sleeves although the artwok itself is quite minimal. Its believed to be an all analog/ue recording and mastering and sounds simply stunning.