Leica D-Lux 3, ISO 800
Modern Wilco, the hip band that from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on tuned us in to mysterious frequencies and gibberish language floating on the radio waves, is hellbent on showing their breadth. So it is they could play a languid folk song like “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” at Merriweather Post the other night, immediately following the Television-like “Black Bull Nova.” Sometimes their folky consonant impulse is trumped by their noise-rock dissonant impulse in the same song, such as “Via Chicago,” which led off their encore, and includes the band just wailing, from out of nowhere, while Tweedy sings on as if nothing were amiss, his youthful voice prettily keeping to the melody.
There’s something oddly satisfying about their sweet’n’sour approach, even when it’s revealed as schtick. When “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” led off Foxtrot a decade ago, it was at once a reminder of the junkie cadences of Tom Verlaine’s “Yonki Time,” mashed up with the raw angst expressed by Alex Chilton in Sister Lovers — an in-the-moment, off-kilter, druggy song charming mostly in the way melody fought through entropy. But now when they come out and they play it note for note — well, it’s incredibly powerful, but it’s show biz, right, an amazingly proficient band able to re-manufacture the moment of creativity, on stage, before 10,000 people, night after night.
I’ll take Wilco’s perfectionist absence of spontaneity over a less ambitious band’s more sincere raucousness, so long as they keep churning out albums with the scope and ambition of The Whole Love, released today, and with enough grist that we’ll be working through it for months, maybe years.
We’ve previously referenced how The Whole Love invokes Wilco’s Beatles impulse. On Sky Blue Sky, we loved the tongue-in-cheek evocation of Abbey Road‘s sound — from Ringo’s plodding drums to the Billy Preston keyboards during the bridge of “I Hate It Here.” On The Whole Love, we have Tweedy invoking John Lennon on “Sunloathe,” and “Capitol City” could have fallen off the back of the truck carrying The White Album master to the factory. Just as we don’t begrudge them their consummate professionalism onstage, we love the fact that only Wilco and Olivia Tremor Control have figured out how to sound like the entire quartet, the complete Fab 4 — a little Macca vocal, a-a-nd here’s that George slide sound…
The first three songs of the concert the other night, all from The Whole Love — “The Art of Almost,” followed by “I Might,” followed by “Black Moon” — could be Wilco in miniature: experimental art-rock building to a psychedelic crescendo, followed by an homage to the New Wave soul sound of Get Happy, followed by a tuneful acoustic picker of almost breathtaking delicacy. Sometimes the live band consists of three guitars and a keyboard, or two keyboards and two guitars, but its sound is always dense and layered, with multiple virtuosi — talents on the order of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone aren’t usually teamed in the same band, just like baseball teams don’t usually have a rotation like the Phillies’ — and always there is Tweedy, the Everyman with the rumpled, just-out-of-bed-even-if-I’m-dressed-up look, and the voice that is astonishingly even, steady, youthful, deceptively elastic and true. We used to think it was anodyne, now we think it’s genius.
Longtime readers of Tulip Frenzy know that, over the years, we’ve been ambivalent about Wilco, for one reason in particular. We don’t like bands that lull people into singing along with what we’ve perceived as heroin-chic lyrics — “Guess all I need is a shot in the arm… there’s something in my veins bloodier than blood”– etc. In fact, the other night, we saw a dad lifting his little tow-head girl into the air while singing those words, and we thought, “Good God, man, listen to what you’re singing!” On the other side of the ledger, when critics put down Sky Blue Sky because after Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, it supposedly lacked “an edge,” it was a dumb allusion to Tweedy’s post-recovery sobriety, and one that pissed us off.
We’re done wrestling with Wilco. The band that once titled an album Being There is — if you are there and in the moment, as they say — incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. They also are, by dint of their accumulated songbook and the weight of their albums, the most “important” band of the present age, and what they produce achieves genuine greatness. From the Southern rock of A.M. to the encyclopedic The Whole Love, Wilco’s growth curve puts a fair number of pantheon cohabitants — we’re talking about you, U2 — to shame. We throw in the towel, and not with reluctance. Wilco has earned full rights to our devotion.
UPDATE: Anyone noticed how near the end of “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgenson/Pat Sansone sound EXACTLY like Fripp and Eno on Evening Star?
UPDATE 2: Dig the way on the D-Lux version on iTunes, includes the song “I Love My Label,” which is a direct invocation of Camper Van Beethoven. Anyone can invoke the Ramones, but only the very cool dare sound like Camper. Nice move, and happy about the record label, guys.