The Wilco File

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)

The Wilco File, Part 1

Last Friday, Wilco released their ninth studio album Star Wars in a more tangible form than “downloadable files”.  We already published our review of their excellent new record, but there are probably several readers who may have been intrigued by what they heard in Star Wars but have yet to take the plunge into Wilco’s extensive back catalog.  Sure, the band helped simplify the process a bit by releasing the greatest hits collection What’s Your 20?, but a compilation only gives you a partial glimpse of the evolution of the band.  So we are here to provide this handy guide to the Wilco discography, broken up into two easily-digestible halves.

A.M. In order to understand the poor reputation of Wilco’s debut album, one needs to know the circumstances of its creation.  Wilco was formed after the breakup of the beloved and influential underground alt-country act Uncle Tupelo.  Tensions had been simmering for a while and came to a head just as Uncle Tupelo was breaking into the mainstream, and irreconcilable differences between the two primary songwriters resulted in the group being split into two bands.  Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while the rest of Uncle Tupelo lined up under Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco.  The initial critical consensus was that Jay Farrar, who wrote the bulk of the material for Uncle Tupelo, had the stronger debut with Son Volt, and Tweedy’s group suffered in comparison.

However, when you separate the album from the drama that surrounded its release, A.M. holds up much better.  Without those expectations of living up to Uncle Tupelo’s past work, one can enjoy the record for what it is: a light and fun country-tinged rock album.  The band keeps the song structures simple and the tone is very playful, and the inclusion of some of these early songs in recent setlists has been a pleasant surprise.  Those connoisseurs of fine taste, Beavis and Butt-head, knew what was up.

Being There Critics were quick to dismiss Wilco after A.M., but they were quick to reverse themselves when the group released Being There, one of the few double albums that actually works as a double album.  Being There hints at the direction the group would take in subsequent albums, with its shift to a more serious and melancholic tone.  The album also marked Wilco’s beginning into more experimental production touches, most notably their initial forays into incorporating noise and other similar elements into their songs, as can be heard with the opener and audience favorite “Misunderstood”, a relatively straightforward three-chord ballad that is marked by little details like an alarm beeping in the background as well as the big noisy crashes that interrupt the flow of the song periodically.

The division into two discs makes sense from a sonic perspective, with the first disc primarily composed of upbeat rockers with the second one focused on more acoustic numbers.  Though the entire album could fit onto a single disc, the split helps prevent the listener from becoming overwhelmed in attempting to listen to eighty straight minutes in one sitting, and allows the listener to choose a side that more appropriately reflects the mood.  It is a testament to the balance of Wilco’s sound that each disc is qual in quality.

Summerteeth After earning plaudits for Being There, Wilco decided to cut loose a bit and go in a poppier direction, a decision that caused a split with the group’s fans at the time.  Summerteeth is a bright, lush album filled with huge arrangements and a sparkling production that allows all the musical layers to shine.  The album moves at a brisk pace, but the peaks represent some of the best work that Wilco has done in their career, including the groovy “Can’t Stand It”, the driving “A Shot In The Arm”, and the ebullient “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”.  Still, amid all the happiness, the record is probably best known for the stark, bleak “Via Chicago”, with its memorable opening line “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me” and its several band freakouts.  In the middle of all that turbulence, however, there is still that incredible descending melodic hook that persists throughout and drives the song, summing up the theme of the record.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Considered by many to be Wilco’s masterpiece, the album was close to never being released at all, as documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.  The initial rejection by the band’s label seems quaint now, with its reputation as an anti-commercial record seeming overblown as the years have passed; the fact that Reprise did not think it could sell the record based on pure pop songs and ready-made singles like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” says more about their own skills than anything.

However, there is the faintest hint of merit to the label’s concern, as a lot of the songs are gussied up with unnecessarily bracing production flourishes.  These random elements obscure some of the most gorgeous and eloquent songwriting of the band’s career, though it was their clear intent.  It is an album that is meant to be off-putting on the first few listens, but the hints of what lay underneath the surface are enough to entice closer inspection.  Live editions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks help strip away some of the artifice to reveal the heart of the songs themselves, and may be a better entry point into the record, but when one gets comfortable with the material, it is easier to appreciate all those extraneous touches.