Wilco Wilco (The Album)

[Nonesuch; 2009]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: indie pop, soft krautrock
Others: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Richard Swift, The Autumn Defense

When the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo led to the hotshot birth of Wilco, many were there to see the baby known as A.M. crawl, waddle, and walk itself into the hearts of once-saddened Tupelo worshippers. But it didn’t take long before Wilco learned how to strut, as the group’s second album, the ambitious double-disc Being There, not only explored the roots from which the band had sprouted, but also hinted at the pop-rock experimentation that eventually became their calling card. Summerteeth proved the group — especially Tweedy — was much more than an "alt-country" collective: five years in and we were already in the throes of genius

Then came the much beloved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which transformed Wilco from beloved grassroots favorites into cult stars. Wilco were finally calling their own shots, and even Warner Bros. gave in to the madness. What followed was A Ghost is Born, Wilco’s most ambitious album to date. Despite being an uneven affair, A Ghost Is Born gave fans a host of favorites to sing along with at the group’s jam-packed concerts while also challenging them with tracks like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think."

The momentum shifted with Sky Blue Sky, an album that found much of the harsh edges and angular riffs replaced with softer sounds reminiscent of 70s AM radio. A rift between fans began to form; those who have stood by the band since its inception were beginning to feel left in the cold, while those who had found Wilco through the chaos and controversy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were further embracing Wilco as their own. Of course, there were plenty of people stuck in the middle, not knowing what to make of the heavily subdued Nels Cline solos and quiet fortitude of Glenn Kotche. Sky Blue Sky found a band at an acoustical crossroads, choosing to tell their stories in hushed tones — odd for a group 13 years into existence.

Wilco (The Album), the group's latest, may smack of the elbow-in-the-spine humor fans of Tweedy and company have come to adore through the ages (not to mention the completed trifecta of The Wilco Book and Wilco toys), but beyond the cover art and a clever turn of phrase, the album is as bland and uninspired as the joke. True, unlike Sky Blue Sky, which was an album’s worth of lullabies compared to the skronk and kraut of A Ghost is Born, there are glimmers of the ‘old’ Wilco hiding throughout, but dissidents of their current phase will surely find it painful to stomach many of the album's 11 tracks.

Believably enough, Wilco (The Album) kicks off with “Wilco (The Song),” which is pulled from “The Late Greats” playbook, right down to selling the virtue of bands in Wilco’s mold that forego pretense in favor of delivering rock in its many varieties — and like its sister song from A Ghost is Born it delivers happy pop in spades. The echoing message -- that Wilco loves us -- still rings true no matter how betrayed or welcome you’ve felt since Sky Blue Sky. But as true as the opening salvo rings, it doesn’t make up for the lackluster follow-ups, “Deeper Down” and “One Wing,” which smack of Sky Blue Sky’s need to minimize the fun just as it was beginning, turning the guys once again from bandstand leaders into tired parental clichés.

Before you completely fall into a tuneless depression, Wilco are there to pick you back up with “Bull Black Nova,” which mimics the kraut urgency of “Spiders” and the pop power of “Hell is Chrome.” It’s the strongest five and a half minutes of Wilco (The Album) largely due to the call-and-response provided by Tweedy and Cline’s guitars snaking throughout Pat Sansone’s pounding piano melody. Wilco were once the masters of building tension, as any fan of Summerteeth will attest, and “Bull Black Nova” is the latest incarnation of those powers, blending the new pop-friendly sounds of Wilco with the band’s longstanding aesthetics. The good times continue with lead single “You Never Know,” though the reasons for its successes are steeped in familiarity. The song’s opening riff takes over where Tom Petty’s “Jammin’ Me” left off, and it doesn’t stop until it runs headfirst into George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. Wilco have tapped into the summer radio tunes they lauded in “Heavy Metal Drummer,” except Kiss has been supplanted with Jeff Lynne’s sleek 80s production.

Unlike Sky Blue Sky, which saw Wilco eagerly casting aside the spastic and raw guitar solos and Crazy Horse jams in favor of capturing the sounds of radio’s past, Wilco (The Album)'s brightest spots don't even cover new ground. The strongest tracks hearken back to recycled AM frequencies, while other moments sound like renditions from Wilco’s own vault. As the album draws on, it becomes impossible not to compare “Solitaire” to “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard,” “Sonny Feeling” to “Pick Up the Change” and “I Got You.” These new tracks may represent a matured Wilco, but you can't shake the feeling that you’ve heard it long ago in a more romanticized time and nostalgic setting.

Wilco (The Album) isn’t a failure — not by any means — but when a band has become so attached to the notion of change and then stagnates, it casts a heavy shadow that's hard to escape. It’s always a pleasure to hear new Wilco music, and the future looks to hold bundles of new and eccentric output, but even the best and brightest grow a little dull from time to time.

1. Wilco (the Song)
2. Deeper Down
3. One Wing
4. Bull Black Nova
5. You and I
6. You Never Know
7. Country Disappeared
8. Solitaire
9. I’ll Fight
10. Sonny Feeling
11. Everlasting Everything

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