Do we overvalue novelty in rock music?
If the best rock music thrives on the tension between the novel and the familiar, why is it that us critical types always focus our attention and praise on the former? Perhaps it’s because we condescendingly feel as if the mass audience gravitates too strongly towards comfort food in their sonic palate, leaving it to us enlightened listeners to provide a counterbalance. There’s a case to be made that our endless search for the unique says more about ourselves and our own anxieties than it says about the music.
Sometimes, though, even the most hardened, uptight music geek will succumb to the pleasures of the comfortable, especially if the songs are there to back it up. Radiohead’s In Rainbows – my top album of 2007 – was probably the least innovative record the band had put out in ten years. It’s also one of their greatest works, successfully weaving a decade of experimental tendencies in and out of a collection of fantastic songs to create a record that felt warm, lived in and instantly familiar.
Though not quite a success at the same level, Wilco (the album) succeeds in almost exactly the same way. It’s the sound of a band raiding its back catalogue for inspiration, mashing what they find against their current raison d’etre and producing their most rewarding record in years.
This is an aural arms open wide / A sonic shoulder for you to cry on
So states “Wilco (the song),” the awesomely self-aware call-to-arms that opens the record. What I love about the statement is that it’s a view of the relationship between art and artist that is rarely acknowledged rock and roll’s world of personality cults and the inseparability of biography and discography. Instead of focusing on what they’re trying to say, Jeff Tweedy and company are inviting you to find your own comforts within the songs. And they’ll love you no matter what.
Thankfully, there’s plenty on Wilco (the album) to love back, especially in light of the boring, meandering disappointment that was their last release, Sky Blue Sky. That record felt like Wilco’s current membership trying to find a sound for themselves in a vacuum, independent of their band’s long and storied history. By pulling in the sounds from that history – a bit of Being There, a bit of Summerteeth and a pinch of A Ghost is Born here and there – the six-piece incarnation of Wilco finds its identity as a comfortable, insanely capable amalgam of its past, present and future.
There are a couple of lesser moments – “Country Disappeared” is a bit slow and “Deeper Down” continues the band’s three-records-in-a-row streak of totally cramping their style on track two – the record is mostly hit after hit. You get the brilliantly claustrophobic, kraut-rock riff of “Bull Black Nova,” the country stomp of “You Never Know,” and two of the band’s best ballads in some time with “You And I” and “Solitaire.” None of these don’t tread any ground that the band hasn’t covered before, mind you, and there’s a case to be made that Wilco (the album) is the least distinctive record in the band’s career. But the title is accurate – it’s the most distinctively Wilco record that Wilco have ever made.
This is normally the part of the review where I would explain why that’s a problem. But it’s not. Because sometimes, it’s the familiar that will love you baby…
Watch: Wilco – “You Never Know” (live on at the Wiltern – bootleg)