As a record-collecting geek and ardent student of rock history, Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy knows the best bands often provide a narrative arc with a dramatic twist or surprising turn upon the release of each new album.
The story behind Wilco's first album "A.M." (1995) was Tweedy establishing his own identity separate from Jay Farrar, his partner in Uncle Tupelo, the earlier group that laid the foundations of alternative country.
"Being There" (1996) found the singer and songwriter pushing the boundaries of alt-country toward old-school guitar rock, while "Summerteeth" (1999) showed him abandoning the genre for gorgeous orchestral pop unimaginable without the contributions of then-bandmate Jay Bennett. (See sidebar.)
Wilco's masterpiece, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002), was about the unraveling of the Bennett/Tweedy collaboration, as well as a shift toward more fractured experimental sounds reflecting a world in chaos--the perfect soundtrack after 9/11.
"A Ghost is Born" (2004) pushed the envelope on the art-rock and reflected Tweedy's battle to kick prescription drugs. And the group's last release, "Sky Blue Sky" (2007), was a quiet sigh of contentment after all that turbulence.
The big story on the group's seventh studio album--arriving in stores June 30th but already available as streaming audio at www.wilcoworld.net--is that there's really no story this time, which may account for the purposely generic title: "Wilco (The Album)."
Despite indie-rock bloggers who dismiss the group as "dad rock," the band has cemented a reputation as one of the most creative forces in rock today, with Tweedy evoking comparisons to greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young. It's become a vibrant commercial enterprise, too, selling out multiple nights at mid-sized theaters across the U.S. and in Europe, as well as peddling many songs to TV ads, as with the last album.
By all accounts, at age 41, Tweedy is happier and healthier than ever, comfortably living with his wife and two sons on the Northwest Side. And Wilco's current lineup of bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen is not only its most virtuosic, but its steadiest, and the first to remain intact for two consecutive recordings.
"Wilco (The Album)" therefore is a summing-up of what the band is and everywhere it's been, and it fittingly opens with "Wilco (The Song)." Giddy and goofy, both rarities for this band, it's a heartfelt country-pop thank-you to the fans, as well as an idealistic statement about the healing power of music.
"Do you dabble in depression?" Tweedy sings. "Are you being attacked?/Oh, this is a fact that you need to know... Wilco will love you, baby!"
As if throwing open the windows on a sunny day, the band spent much less time bunkered down in its Chicago loft, traveling to Auckland, New Zealand, to record much of the disc at a studio owned by Neil Finn of Crowded House, and mixing in Valencia, Calif.--all with much less angst than usual. "There's a really relaxed quality to the way we work together now," Tweedy recently told SPIN.
This is evidenced by a set of mid-tempo, gently upbeat tunes proudly heralding their classic-rock influences and romantic sentiments. "You Never Know" lifts a hook from Sly Stone's "Everyday People" and pairs it with George Harrison's signature guitar; "One Wing" boasts some of the most gorgeous harmonies the group's recorded; "Country Disappeared" and "Solitaire" both nod to mid-period Big Star with their fragile but pretty melodies and melancholy lyrics; "You and I" is a sweet pop duet with Leslie Feist, and "Sunny Feeling" is the best Tom Petty song that Petty never wrote.
For fans of Wilco at its artiest and noisiest, the group offers "Bull Black Nova," an exquisitely creepy examination of the aftermath of a murder, with Tweedy's edgiest vocal performance and a guitar explosion worthy of Television. And for those who've been longing for a return to "Summerteeth," there's the disc-closing "Everlasting Everything," with big orchestral swells rife with tympani and tubular bells.
If the initial reaction is one of disappointment that Wilco has failed to surprise us, that's true enough: We've heard variations of all of this before, musically and lyrically. But the more you listen, the more you realize that almost all of these tracks--the annoying sing-song toss-off "I'll Fight" excepted--stand beside the best that the band has given us in each genre. And when a collection of songs is as solid as this one, who really needs the drama, anyway?
SIDEBAR: THE MARK JAY BENNETT LEFT ON WILCO
The myth that you must be miserable to make great art persists, though it's absurdly destructive and patently untrue. "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" isn't brilliant because Jeff Tweedy was in pain; it's brilliant despite the suffering.
Creative friction is a different story, though. Whether we're talking John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Tweedy and former Wilco bandmate Jay Bennett, two talented and strong-willed individuals often goad one another to produce their very best. And it's just coincidental that they make each another miserable in the process.
Bennett was found dead in his sleep at age 45 in his home in downstate Urbana Sunday morning. A native of suburban Rolling Meadows, he was fired from Wilco in 2001, but he'd yet to make a clean break: Last month, he sued Tweedy for unpaid artist's royalties stemming from the warts-and-all documentary about the unraveling of their partnership, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."
Bennett made a lot of fine music before and after Wilco--including three albums with his earlier group Titanic Love Affair and four solo discs later on (the best of which is 2002's "The Palace at 4 a.m.")--and his productions and arrangements benefited other artists ranging from Alison Moorer to Blues Traveler. But his contributions to Wilco will remain his greatest musical legacy.
"Being There" captured the ramping up, and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," the winding down. "Summerteeth" stands as the high point, with Bennett serving as a one-man orchestra contributing organ, synthesizer, banjo, percussion, piano, drums, guitar, pedal steel and backing vocals as well as co-writing 12 of 15 tracks with Tweedy and acting as his George Martin or Phil Spector-like studio svengali.
The best way to remember Bennett is to celebrate that music, in particular "Pieholden Suite," a song he loved so much that he took it as the name for his recording studio. The key verse comes in the middle of the epic tune, carried upon the most lush and elaborate sounds Wilco has made:
"There are dreams/We might have shared/And I still care/And I still love you/But you know how I've been untrue."