"Art of Almost," the first track on Wilco's eighth studio album attempts to offer plenty for discussion. We're hit quickly with watery electronic percussion and a head-rush of symphonic sampling before singer Jeff Tweedy starts chanting his few, esoteric words. It's not a complicated song; Tweedy could just strum the thing meditatively on an acoustic guitar. But this is what Wilco does now, or is expected to do. They stretch it, they color it, they fill it in, dressing up the music with loops and synthesizers -- always lightly, always tastefully. This is what built Wilco's reputation into something far beyond its core talents, the "experimentation" that earned the band such imperious praise starting on 1999's "Summerteeth" and culminating around 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
It's also what makes the album, "The Whole Love" (recorded in the band's Chicago loft and a first on its newly launched dBpm label) , unexpectedly delicate, pleasant and pretty. I say "unexpected" because the last few albums, including 2009's Grammy-nominated "Wilco (The Album)," were slightly more ham-fisted in their approach and a little too eager to reclaim roots. "The Whole Love" boasts an unbearable lightness and seems oblivious to expectations.
Most of the songs on "The Whole Love" don't show off their electronic accessorizing, but the little sparkles and bangles and noisy trinkets add a spring to the music's step on a record that otherwise might have sagged like an old swayback mount. Loops complement the woozy lyrics of "Sunloathe"; an ever-so-slight sound effect (jungle calls? frogs? a crowd?) waxes and wanes at a crucial moment underneath "Black Moon"; a synthesizer injects extra urgency atop "Born Alone"; and their beloved, cooing Mellotron adds dimension behind the woody, multi-tracked guitars of straight-ahead rockers like "Dawned on Me." To accentuate the force of two lines in the otherwise jaunty "I Might," Tweedy supports his vocal with two samples of Iggy Pop singing the same words from the Stooges song "T.V. Eye." By the time we get to the album's other left-field bookend, the 12-minute closer "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," keyboardist/programmer Mikael Jorgensen is credited solely with "wavetable scrubbing."
Again, these are trinkets -- unnecessary, but they add perspective. On "The Whole Love," unlike some of the band's previous electronic dabblings, these flourishes don't fight for the forefront. The take-away from the marathon "Morning," for instance, is still the lovely, gossamer acoustic riff. Better than most Wilco outings in the last decade, "The Whole Love" ably showcases the band's true ultimate success: taking simple folk-rock stylings and song structures and outfitting them for contemporary ears. This album is still basic Wilco rock-pop, it just sounds great in the earbuds.
None of this is meant to slight the musicianship also on display. Part of what makes "Art of Almost" so bracing is the highly caffeinated scrape-fest from guitarist Nels Cline that froths up around the five-minute mark. John Stirratt's bass playing throughout the record nimbly coils like a cat around the legs of both rhythm and melody. This is Wilco's third consecutive album with the same lineup (including drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone), a first for the frequently shifting band, and it sounds as if they've reached a level of comfort and ease with each other that seems to be leveling them off in a good way.