Wilco’s Wildly Ambitious “The Whole Love”

Years ago, when Wilco was nailing Southern rock and becoming alt.country demigods, you may not have thought of them in the same breath as The Beatles, but in late September, when they release The Whole Love on Apple Records — I mean, on their own label using Apple’s iTunes Store — you’ll see what we mean.  WilcoWorld has nicely let us stream the album in its entirety for the past 24 hours, and in a throwback to those days when one would listen to the Beatles or Stones or the Who’s new album over and over, we’ve done just that.  The player even shows a vinyl record spinning.  They have a complete understanding of what they’re doing, of the company they’re in.

“Art of Almost,” which kicks things off, might make you think of Radiohead before you’d ever get to, say, Uncle Tupelo. When Nels Cline shows off at the end, it’s not some exercise in formalism, but an embrace of rock’n’roll song extension, a throwback to those vinyl days when what was so enchanting was the way bands would leave the tape spinning as they boogied on in the studio and you wished you were a fly on the wall for that moment when, ten minutes after the song officially ended, the musicians would just, suddenly, stop.  (Sometimes you’d even hear a guitarist yell, “I’ve got blisters on me fingers!”)

We’ve been listening for weeks to “I Might,” the single, and it’s a bright bit of power pop replete with Farfisa.  And a reminder that, if Wilco can start a new album with two such different expressions of possibility, this is a band that can play anything.  And on The Whole Love, they do.

Ten years ago, when Warner Brothers was defiantly proving why record labels were willing themselves to extinction by refusing to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it did seem to me that that record had taken Big Star’s Sister Lovers as its template.  You know what I mean, a big, troubled, druggy mess with enough beauty at its core that it was riveting.  An idea that was proved by I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the documentary that illustrated why the band needed to be reformed, with the cerebral Cline replacing the late Jay Bennett as Tweedy’s instrumental foil.  On The Whole Love, the template that comes to mind is The White Album. A big statement, yes, but the melding of acoustic songs, the delving into idioms that preceded rock’n’roll, the notion of craft that transcends what any other rock band in the universe might produce – these guys don’t even have the Stones as peers, they are literally peerless — all the while clinging to sufficient pop structures that even contain hooks… Well, Wilco by now are masters, sui generis.  Except, increasingly, for invoking one band in particular… It’s not just that “Sunloathe” sounds like it could have been on Abbey Road, that Tweedy sounds like Lennon and that Cline plays his George Harrison guitar.  These guys have reached that upper echelon of rock experimentalists.  Again, ambitious like The Beatles.

We thought Wilco (The Album) was a rare letdown, a step backward after Sky Blue Sky.  It was almost as if they went to New Zealand as much to record 7 Worlds Collide as their own record.  Now, after two years of hosting their own festival showcasing their taste and side projects, they came roaring back with something bigger, stronger, more ambitious, more tuneful than anything that has come to date.  This is a band that would seem to be at the top of its form, if they also didn’t seem so ready to take things into an historic next level.  By the time you nod your head to the great album rock cut “Born Alone,” you’re ready for the grand conclusion of “One Sunday Morning,” a Dylanesque title for a Beatlesesque conclusion.  Get ready for a whole lotta loving of The Whole Love.

One Response to “Wilco’s Wildly Ambitious “The Whole Love””

  1. It brings great joy to my heart to know that somebody, more qualified than myself to write an album review, had the exact same impression of this record as I did. Everything I love about Wilco, music, artistry and life is included in The Whole Love. Without a doubt, just as great an experience as hearing Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. I’m immediately enthusiastic, and loyal to this record as one of the finest experiences hearing an album to date.

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