Wilco – The Whole Love
It would have been so easy for Wilco to just fade away. No one would have begrudged them any; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot still engenders enough goodwill in the music community ten years after its release that if Jeff Tweedy decided to spend the rest of his years writing paeans to fatherhood and singing sweet, insubstantial love songs with Feist, everyone would simply nod their heads and go along with it. But what Wilco has always done best is growth, from Being There’s epic expansion of classic Americana to the unapologetic power pop of Summerteeth to A Ghost Is Born’s startling abrasive rock classicism. Through it all the constant was Tweedy, suffering through a recurring painkiller medication and the woes of growing old, his biting lyricism continually well tempered with fine melodies culled from the best folk tradition, from Cash to Young to Bragg. That’s why it was so weird to see the band settle into such a droll tedium starting with 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, like the band had decided writing about midlife crises wasn’t enough and that maybe they should start living one as well. Wilco (The Album) showed that all the cries of putting this aging band out to pasture were a bit premature, but even that album was more a celebration of past successes, a victory lap of the things Wilco did best, like their updated “Via Chicago” rendition in “Bull Black Nova.” It was all well and good, but for a band as continually predicated on evolution as Wilco, it now feels depressingly stagnant.
As a first single, “I Might” was disturbingly coy; for all the lyrics about parental discord and setting children on fire, it was fairly rote late-period Wilco. That is to say, boring and not particularly memorable. In the context of The Whole Love, however, it’s one hell of a red herring. It’s the most conventional song on here, an old-fashioned rock ‘n roll respite cleverly placed after the delightfully unconventional opener “Art of Almost.” That is the song that sets out the mission statement of The Whole Love – an unassumingly complicated drumbeat propelling a foggy atmosphere of discordant electronics and haunting strings, Tweedy himself practically a ghost in the background, all the elements swirling around each other without falling apart. It’s a harkening back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot territory, at least until Nels Cline rips in with a guitar solo that stretches the song to nearly seven and a half minutes and serves notice that this is not the same Wilco that made that seminal 2001 release. It’s the biggest mark Cline has made since joining the band, and the only tragedy is it’s taken them three albums to finally realize this incarnation of Wilco’s potential.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what The Whole Love does best. There’s hints of Summerteeth-esque pop bliss on crunchy guitar numbers like “Dawned On Me,” where Tweedy’s charmingly imperfect voice gives the chorus all the pizazz it needs. The countrified ballad “Open Mind” finds Tweedy at his most confessional, the campfire vibe recalling Uncle Tupelo and the lyrics Tweedy’s most unashamedly direct. “Capitol City” is a bit more ill advised, a disposable little vaudeville exercise that sounds like a Beatles outtake circa Sgt. Pepper’s, but what still captivates is just how damn well crafted it is. Mikael Jorgensen’s jaunty keyboard, Cline’s lilting pedal steel, Glenn Kotche’s waste-not/want-not drumming (the man is brilliant in giving even the wispiest rhythm a very real substance and gravity): it’s all greater than the sum of its parts. That is perhaps the enduring lesson of The Whole Love; for all of Tweedy’s evocative songwriting and pained, autobiographical stories, Wilco is a band, first and foremost. More so than perhaps any other album in Wilco’s catalog, The Whole Love succeeds because the band isn’t evolving exponentially or diving headfirst into musical waters unknown. For all its weirdness, “Art of Almost” isn’t exactly indicative of what’s to come, per se. It’s how the band members interact on “Art of Almost” and “Capitol City” and the deceptively simple title track that makes The Whole Love such an improvement over lackluster previous outings. There’s so much going on here that even the most straightforward of tracks has a subversive flair about them that an initial listen might not catch. The buzz saw lower-end distortion in the otherwise sunny “I Might” and the understated bass rhythm from “Rising Red Lung” are just two examples, and the fact that they both involve John Stirratt is no coincidence – he is the unsung hero of The Whole Love. But it’s more than any one man’s contribution, more than Tweedy’s forlorn vocals, more than Cline’s elegant guitar licks, more than Kotche’s economical drumming. It’s Wilco the whole band, a unification of talents so seamless you wonder why every Wilco album doesn’t come out so brilliantly (and so effortlessly) put together.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates what makes Wilco such a special band at this stage of their career than closer “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” It’s not a song that reinvents the wheel; stylistically it would feel just as home on 1995 debut A.M. as it does here. It picks a destination and it sets out for it, riding the back of an irresistibly simple fingerpicked motif and a syncopated hi-hat. “This is how I’ll tell it / Oh, but it’s long,” Tweedy sings, and he isn’t kidding; at just a hair over twelve minutes, it’s one of the longest in Wilco’s catalog. But it never feels that way, despite the song’s unerring consistency. Embellished by strings and piano, it stays its course and gradually dissipates over a long outro, but the experience is timeless. For twelve minutes Wilco isn’t some institutional rock group, testing the outer boundaries of pop and creating something new and exciting. This is a song in the great American tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, painting a picture of old dust roads and melancholy sunsets, Tweedy bemoaning at the end “bless my mind, I miss being told how to love / what I learned without knowing / how much more I owe than I can give.” It’s a celebration of the art of storytelling, a tradition and a template that Wilco have always been deeply indebted to. That’s what The Whole Love is all about, telling a story and sticking to it, crafting a mix of sound and lyrics that best symbolizes the music that beats under American highways and floats around American campfires. Wilco have had their peaks and valleys, but they have never sounded as confident as they do on The Whole Love. For a band with eight studio albums and coming up on eighteen years running, I can’t think of anything more impressive.
Wilco – “Whole Love”