Sky Blue Sky

The Wilco File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our examination of Wilco’s discography, we began with a look at the origins of the band and finished with an analysis of their biggest commercial success.  Today, we take a look at the second half of Wilco’s career, as they emerge from their tumultuous early years and solidify into one of the most consistently riveting live acts in the country.

A Ghost Is Born Though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would ultimately prove to be a high point for the band, the process took a toll on the group.  As the band dealt with the external difficulties that arose from their record label troubles, the group was also once again experiencing internal struggles, culminating with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.  In addition, Jeff Tweedy was coping with an addiction to painkillers stemming from his chronic migraines, which would affect the promotion of YHF‘s follow-up.

My entry point into Wilco was A Ghost Is Born, so I have always held it in higher esteem than most, but I still insist the album represents the band’s creative peak.  The band’s sonic explorations had a more clear focus, and instead of being merely ornamental flourishes, helped support the songs themselves, like the Krautrock-inspired “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.  The album is loaded with some of the group’s best pure rock songs, from “Handshake Drugs” to “Theologians” to “At Least That’s What You Said”, the last of which features the most scintillating and inventive guitar playing of Jeff Tweedy’s career.  The tour in support of A Ghost Is Born also spurred the creation of one of the greatest live records of all time, Kicking Television, a two-disc compilation that served as an effective showcase of the genius underlying that album.

Sky Blue Sky With their record label situation fully resolved and a lineup finally settled, Wilco decided the time was right to relax a bit, and the result was the release of the laid-back Sky Blue Sky.  It is the ultimate lazy summer album, perfect for unwinding with a beer after toiling under the hot sun mowing the lawn, though chilling after engaging in hard labor is hardly necessary for enjoyment.  This is around the time when the band began to be tagged with the derisive label of “dad rock”, and though it is somewhat accurate in reflecting the nature of the music, it need not be taken as an insult.  Sometimes, the mood is just right for easygoing jams like “Either Way” or “Side with the Seeds”, though Sky Blue Sky does feature the most epic guitar jam of the group’s career, with the three-headed attack of “Impossible Germany”, led by Nels Cline’s impeccable lead playing.

Wilco (the Album) The band continued to mine the same vein of Sky Blue Sky with the release of Wilco (the Album), a record that at the time seemed like a fine addition to the Wilco catalog but has come to be regarded as one of their least essential recordings.  Cuts from the album have for the most part disappeared from the band’s setlist, and while there are several pleasant moments scattered throughout (ranging from the soaring “One Wing” to the beautiful “Everlasting Everything” to the restless “Bull Black Nova”), it rarely leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

The Whole Love Wilco switched gears with the wide-ranging and adventurous  The Whole Love, which saw the band scratching that itch for the experimental for the first time in years.  For the first time since A Ghost Is Born, it seemed the band decided to challenge themselves, an intention that is clear from the outset with the multi-part opener “Art of Almost”.  In addition, Wilco prove that they still have a playful side, as seen with the bouncy “Dawned on Me” and the goofy “I Might”, and that they are not afraid to cut loose, as they do with the boisterous “Standing O”.  In many ways, The Whole Love served as a perfect encapsulation of all facets of the Wilco sound.

There you have it.  Oh, because everyone likes lists, here is the definitive ranking of Wilco albums, which also doubles as a handy step-by-step guide to working through their back catalog.

  1. A Ghost Is Born
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. Being There
  5. The Whole Love
  6. A.M.
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. Wilco (the Album)
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Review: Wilco – Star Wars

Wilco stunned the music world with the surprise release of their ninth studio album, Star Wars, a few weeks ago.  While we have seen some of the biggest pop stars on the planet undertake this kind of gambit (such as Beyonce and U2), it did not seem to be the kind of maneuver that the normally staid indie rock darlings would attempt.  However, the casual nature of the album’s release serves Star Wars well, as it fits the easy-going mood of the material; freed from the anxiety that comes with the build-up and anticipation of months of promotion, Wilco sounds as loose as it has ever been, and the result is the perfect album for a lazy summer afternoon.

Wilco reached their greatest commercial success with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, albums that were intricately composed and fussily produced, but there has always been a part of the band’s identity that pushed back against that instinct and ease up a bit.  Jeff Tweedy most recently indulged in that tendency with his Tweedy side project he put out last year with his son, but unlike Sukirae or Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, the looseness of Star Wars is based more on having fun than simple relaxation.  Even on moments like the sweet “Where Do I Begin”, the band is not afraid of blowing up a lovely ballad to explode in a noisy and triumphant finish.

In a stark contrast with the multi-part layered epics on The Whole Love, the music on Star Wars is stripped down to its basic elements, with songs rarely stretched beyond three minutes.  Guitars with a touch of fuzz distortion dominate the sound, with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone making it a three-guitar attack for most of the record.  The shift in approach creates a sharper and more rocking feel to the album, which is apparent on such songs as “More…” and “Random Name Generator”.  The downside is that Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards are often lost in the shuffle and minimized for the most part, save for a key role in shaping the closer “Magnetized”.

As a gift to fans, Star Wars is a perfect treat.  Those that longed for the carefree days of the early years circa Being There should be more than satisfied with the album, and those that appreciate the knottier and denser material can appreciate cuts like “You Satellite” that stand out after repeated listens.  Though there were many that took advantage of the generous free download opportunity, most will certainly feel compelled enough to give their thanks by purchasing the album when it goes on sale in the near future.

As for the mystery behind the title and the goofy cover art?  Jeff Tweedy can only respond, “I cry at the joke explained.”