Belated Record Review: Wilco, Sky Blue Sky“Could anybody imagine the Wilco record that would make everybody happy?
I can't imagine it.”
--Jeff Tweedy in an interview with The A.V. Club
How did it come to this? How did this band become such a lightning rod? If you’re like me – a fan for over ten years now – you may eventually want to say, Hey, what’s the big deal? They’re just some guys who play these songs, see?
But no. It seems if you are at all rock-inclined, you must have a strong reaction to Wilco
, positive or negative. Even if you regard the band with a blasé “so what?”, somehow that becomes a statement of import. Couldn’t we all just agree that they’re a band that happens to do some things very well that happen to hit the sweet spots of some of us? No? Okay. And you wonder why I feel so murderous about The Hold Steady.
Another way of looking at it: Perhaps it’s a testament to Wilco’s strengths that they manage to garner a reaction, even when they release an album as seemingly unambitious and easygoing as Sky Blue Sky
. Here we have the band’s version of the history of ‘70s rock. To some it might be “dad-rock”
; to my ears, it’s an unlikely hybrid of The Band, Television and Steely Dan. Like the first two bands, Wilco on Sky Blue Sky
revel in the joys of band interplay, in the relatively unadorned sound of musicians making noise together. As for “the Dan,” well, maybe that explains the return of “tasty licks” to their sound arsenal.
But it’s this combination of transparent “play for the song” tastefulness and the “look at me” show-offiness that makes Sky Blue Sky
sound more like a living, breathing thing – capable of humor, sorrow, good times, not afraid to be corny or goofy – than the labored lab project that was 2004’s A Ghost is Born
And of course, Jeff Tweedy is too smart to merely show off his record collection, adding the right jagged edges to songs like “Side with the Seeds” and “Hate it Here.” Plus, he’s written “Leave Me (Like You Found Me),” one of his most lovely songs, worthy of the ranks of “Jesus Etc.” and “Far, Far Away.”
Lyrically, he has pared down his tendency towards elaborate non sequiturs and, yes, he does delve a bit into post-rehab, borderline-new-age platitudes. But his aims haven’t changed. He’s still excited by the possibilities of the words in songs. This is most apparent in the song “Impossible Germany.”
On one hand, it’s friggin’ jazzy lite-rock; on the other, every molecule of the song is perfectly arranged to convey an unfolding sense of wonder. “Impossible Germany, Unlikely Japan.” The phrase seems to mean more and more to Tweedy as the song progresses. It’s about the unknowable natures of distance and discovery alike. “But this is what love is for/To be out of place/Gorgeous and alone/Face to face.”
So is this, in fact, the best Wilco album since Summerteeth
? Oh, I don’t really know. It’s better than Ghost
, that’s for sure; although like that album, many of the songs here sound like blueprints for what will become ecstatic concert showcases. As for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, that album’s become overburdened with meaning and signifiers, in both its acclaim and backlash. It’s hard to think of it as a mere album anymore.
I do wish Wilco would loosen up more and let in just a little tastelessness, maybe a big drum sound or a cheesy keyboard hook. But by the end of Sky Blue Sky
, the swells of emotion get me almost as much as they do in It’s a Wonderful Life
. If this indeed is “dad-rock,” then Jeff Tweedy could do far, far worse than Jimmy Stewart.