There’s just something about dysfunctional musical relationships that capture the imagination—the way that great music so often comes from talented musical minds on the outs with each other, outgrowing one space and pushing each other back and forth for control of it. The 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, chronicling the making of the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, manages to capture such a clash between Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. The Tweedy-Bennett songwriting team produced many of Wilco’s most memorable musical moments in spite of—or maybe because of—the growing tension in their relationship. Years later, the Ashes of American Flags documentary captured quite a different dynamic. The group, four years into what is now the longest run of any lineup in the band’s history, had come a long way from the arguments and migraines. In their place, we got longtime bassist John Stirratt offering around soundcheck cookies and Tweedy commenting on drummer and father-to-be Glenn Kotche’s habit of sitting on the bus hi-lighting parenting books. If the chaos of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the sound of a band straining at its seams, the straight-forward 70s rock of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and its underwhelming follow-up Wilco (The Album) came to be heard as the sound of this new comfort, or worse, complacency.
Critics often pin Tweedy’s best work to his worst moments, from blow outs with bandmates to battles with addiction; so a band and a bandleader at peace became the scapegoat for the albums that sounded uncomfortably static and flat for a group that built its name on swift and unapologetic shifts in style. However, on their eighth LP, The Whole Love, released September 27th on the band’s own imprint, dBpm Records, this lineup of Wilco comes ready to dispel the rumor that has plagued Tweedy throughout his career: that competition and suffering breed great art. Though outsiders feared the now-steady sextet was coasting into a middle-aged rut, The Whole Love suggests that maybe consistency and time was all the band needed to regroup and chart its new course.
The bold opener, “Art of Almost,” is unlike anything else in Wilco’s catalog. It grows out of Kotche’s urgent beat and slowly whirrs into life with Mikael Jorgensen’s simmering synths suggesting some sort of energy bubbling just beneath the surface. Pat Sansone’s Mellotron sweeps in and whisks the song away from its initial direction, melting right into Tweedy’s worn vocals: “No! / I froze / I can’t be so / Far away from my wasteland.” Soon, all the separate pieces converge, tied together by Stirratt’s funkiest and most present bass line to date. Just as the song begins to die down, all of its energy is unleashed: the beat drops in again in tandem with Nels Cline’s violent shredding—as frenzied and uninhibited as anything he’s ever put on record for Wilco—before kicking it up another gear into double time. In the past, opening tracks of Wilco records have acted as critical shorthand for the albums as a whole. If this blistering Krautrock groove doesn’t speak to the rest of the album in sound, it does in purpose, confidently giving us the first real introduction to this lineup we’ve gotten in seven years.
“Art of Almost,” where Cline’s technical prowess and Jorgensen’s electronic influence loom large, is an extreme example, but The Whole Love is smudged all over with the very distinct fingerprints of each member. Lead single “I Might” lets Stirratt’s heavy, fuzzed-out bass line share the spotlight with Jorgensen’s summery organ, while Cline’s dark, squalling guitar dirties up pop gems like “Dawned On Me” and “Born Alone.” Kotche’s raw energy on the drums backs up Tweedy’s lyrical bombast on tracks like “Standing O” (“Maybe you’ve noticed I’m not ashamed / of anything that I’ve done / Maybe you’ve noticed that I’m not the same / as almost anyone”), but his understated textural drum rolls and hushed pattering of brushes and shakers nestle in just as comfortably alongside the more evocative imagery of “Rising Red Lung”: “I found a fix for the fits / Come listen to this / It’s buried under the hiss / and it glows.”
Perhaps most notably, Pat Sansone, who has played the unheralded, catch-all role of multi-instrumentalist for the past seven years, finally makes his studio presence felt in the role of co-producer. The haunting autumnal folk of “Black Moon,” even with Cline’s aching slide guitar, has the potential to fall flat like similar offerings on Wilco (The Album) but instead breathes and broods with a swelling string arrangement that smacks of Sansone. The simplicity of the sullen, Lennon-esque “Sunloathe” makes it easy to overlook, but over headphones, the detail of the instrumental break recalls the careful and captivating production of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
But even as the newer members assert their influence, The Whole Love is in no way a full reinvention of the band as we’ve seen in the past but instead feeds naturally into a continuous vein of the Wilco sound. The jazzy jaunt of “Capitol City” plays like the slicker, poppier follow-up to “Why Would You Want To Live?”, while the unhinged rock of “Standing O” recaptures the Being There spirit of rough-around-the-edges rompers like “Monday.” But also containing some of the band’s poppiest melodies and sunniest arrangements in years, The Whole Love brings to mind Jay Bennett’s signature production on 1999’s Summerteeth. In short, The Whole Love sounds like the record Wilco (The Album) should have been had it not failed to live up to its eponymous title, neither masterfully summarizing Wilco’s previous efforts nor making a particularly bold statement about what this incarnation of the band intended to be. But beyond restating or reinventing, The Whole Love is the sound of a band reclaiming itself.
Perhaps the problem was never the lack of conflict within the group, after all, but a lack of ownership. Even as the newer lineup left its mark on the old songs on stage, shining and polishing the dustiest corners of the band’s deep catalogue, it never seemed ready to stake that same claim to the Wilco name in the studio. A band in flux has no reason to fear destroying expectations, but without the pushing and shoving of egos, this incarnation always seemed to tread lightly around its own legacy. Though this lineup has been slow to grow into its sound and name, its stability has allowed the group time to develop in ways that a revolving door of members and collaborators does not.
There’s no better illustration of this than the transcendent closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a heartbreaking narrative about a son examining his strained relationship with his father after his passing. The 12-minute tune is built around one simple folk riff, but the song never stales or wears itself out, ebbing and flowing, with each member flurrying in and out of focus between verses of some of Tweedy’s strongest lyrical work (“Something sad kept moving / so I wandered around / I fell in love with the burden / that was holding me down”). It is one thing to stretch out a basic riff to 12 minutes and have it feel completely suspended from time, and it is quite another to do it all in one take that was initially intended as a rehearsal for the band members to learn the song.
Comfort and stability might never be romanticized ideals in rock and roll, but they seem to have worked for Wilco, allowing the band time to coalesce into a rare musical unit keenly in tune with itself. By contrast, a band at odds with itself is exciting and unpredictable, if untenable—full of fireworks and self-destructive battles. But even as constant flux and destruction is rich with musical inspiration, there is something to be said for a band that has endured beyond that phase and learned to work and create with each other, rather than in spite of each other, and whose musical relationships color its music with a certain something that sounds a far cry from complacent—something that instead sounds, rather appropriately, whole.
– Catherine DeGennaro, host of The Crate, Saturdays 2-3pm; co-host of Hipsters Don’t Lie, Mondays 11am-12pm on WGTB