Wilco are one of the very, very few bands who can legitimately claim to change their sound from album to album. Part of the reason for this is that Wilco themselves change from album to album. They have hardly made two albums in a row with the same lineup, and at present frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only two members who’ve been around for the whole haul. Every album has a completely different sonic identity from its predecessor, from the pop sounds of Summerteeth to the Neil-Young solos of A Ghost is Born.
It’s interesting, then, that Wilco finds themselves on the defensive regarding their most recent shift on Sky Blue Sky, an album that’s been fairly well reviewed but has been met with a bit of a backlash among fans, one that I think I’m a part of. Take this exchange from an interview Tweedy did with Pitchfork:
Pitchfork: You said the record was more comfortable for [the band] and it sounds that way, too. Given you that you’ve got really talented musicians now that are kind avant-garde like Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, the result is sort of a reigned-in sound. Was that intentional when you were going in?
Jeff Tweedy: Reigned-in? I don’t feel that way. We certainly put a lot of thought an effort into all of the arrangement but I don’t really feel like there was any instance, that I can think of, where anybody had to reign anybody in.
Pitchfork: Maybe that isn’t the proper word but it seems less experimental than the past couple of records.
Jeff Tweedy: I disagree. I think that there’s probably just as much experimentation in the way that people have misused that term quite a bit referring to what Wilco does. I don’t feel like we’ve ever been very experimental to begin with. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve always been a rock band. We’ve incorporated a lot of different elements from our record collection, things we like. They’re just more organically integrated into what we’ve been doing or what this record sounds like. If you listen to the chord changes on something like “You Are My Face”, there’s a lot of things going on in a lot of the songs that I don’t think that are standard rock move[s]. It just doesn’t call attention to itself as much.
I don’t think Tweedy is wrong – Wilco is a rock band, one with a foundation in American roots and folk music. But the reason why people went ga-ga for 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – one of the best albums this decade – was that the aesthetics the band placed over that foundation combined melody and noise to create the perfect soundscape for the broken Americana the album epitomized. Rock and roll isn’t about “chord changes” – it’s all in the aesthetics.
Those like me who had seen the band play live recently were of the mind that this incarnation of Wilco, with brilliant avant garde players like Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, would very likely make the most sonically interesting Wilco album to date. How surprising that they ended up doing the total opposite – making an album that plays more to the band’s alt-country roots than anything they’ve done in quite some time, certainly since Being There. You may think that this is why I’m a bit negative on Sky Blue Sky, but my concerns lie with the execution as much as with the concept.
Theproblem with making an entire album full of quieter fare is that it makes things blend together a bit too much. Wilco has always welcomed the rootsier side of their sound, but it always worked in contrast, as a change of pace from the more adventurous fare that surrounded them. Here, things just don’t stand out. Songs that drop later in the album like “Please be Patient with Me” and “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)” lose their identity. They may be great songs, but they are almost entirely undistinctive. Without a way to contrast them from the rest, they just blend in to the laid-back mix.
The other problem is that the album’s track sequencing totally robs it of any and all momentum. Opener is “Either Way” is a great start, but just when the album needs to kick things in, we get “You Are My Face,” a slow burner that has some great guitar work in its second half but takes far too long to get there. It’s a decent track, but not for your second song on the album when you need to pump things up a notch. And just when things start to recover from that speed bump a few songs later, we get “Shake it Off,” the album’s nadir, insufferably long, boring and pointless. Every time the album starts to pick up steam, a track emerges that drops it back to neutral again.
Sky Blue Sky isn’t a disaster, though, not by a long shot. Songs where the band’s guitarists get to shine – like “Impossible Germany” and my favourite, “Side With the Seeds” – are just as I hoped this incarnation of Wilco would sound. The songs where the band completely embraces their country side, on the fun “Walken” and pretty “What Light,” demonstrates just how wonderfully assured they are as a unit. And then there’s the closer, “On and On and On” which ranks among the most beautiful things the band has ever recorded. It’s atmospheric, haunting and powerful – it almost sounds like it belongs on a different album.
Maybe that’s my problem with Sky Blue Sky, to get self-conscious for a moment. Even putting aside the structural problems I have with it, maybe I’m just disappointed that the sonic playfulness that I loved most about the band have been replaced by, as Tweedy himself admits, musical playfulness. I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of weeks now, hoping that the album would prove to be a grower and that my appreciation for it would grow. And it very well might, but all that’s happened since is a heightened respect for the tracks I like matched by an increasing ambivalence towards everything else. When talking to the AV Club about the album, Tweedy argued that anything that they do is going to be a disappointment to somebody. Sadly, this time I’m that somebody.
Hopefully next time, gents.