By Casey Newton
Wilco’s 8th record, The Whole Love, came out in September, and was greeted with hosannahs by rock critics yearning for a return to form. “Powerful, mind-reeling stuff, if you have the heart for it,” said Rolling Stone. “Wilco’s most sonically adventurous work since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born,” offered Entertainment Weekly. Pitchfork, in the most enthusiastic 6.9 review you’ll read, said The Whole Love “recaptured some of that old unpredictability”: “From Being There through A Ghost Is Born, the band’s best work has always perched itself upon the edge of traditionalism and experimentation, and The Whole Love is the first of their albums in years not to shy away from such risks.”
To make their case, reviewers fixated on the record’s little sonic oddities, which Wilco festooned upon its new songs like so many rhinestones on a belt buckle. “Art of Almost,” a 7-minute opening track that is both show-offy and boring, made the perfect honeypot with which to lure the return-to-form crowd. Pitchfork liked the “glitchy motorik groove that crashes into swarming strings,” not to mention the “elegant bass ooze and keyboard creep, over which Nels Cline drapes a searing komische capper.” Blurt was delighted to find “skittering, Radiohead-like processed beats, burbling keys, and backward-looped guitar bits emerg[ing] from synthesizer haze.” And if komische cappers and burbling keys are the measure of a record, maybe The Whole Love is Wilco’s second-best ever.
And yet of the thousands of words written about The Whole Love, few sought to capture what the record is really about — what’s on Jeff Tweedy’s mind these days, what drives him to create. Wilco’s greatness has always tracked closely with Tweedy’s mental state — the less stable he is, the more compelling his songs have been, musically and lyrically. His feelings of alienation are the chilly fuel that made songs like “Misunderstood,” “How to Fight Loneliness” and “Ashes of American Flags” indelible. The band’s power came from the way they laid Tweedy’s own search for connection over a restless, evolving soundscape. Those squalls of noise present in old Wilco songs were more than mere window dressing — they were a sonic mirror of Tweedy’s dark and shifting moods.
In the years since A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy has gotten off of painkillers, settled into a happy marriage, and is taking evident joy in being a parent. We should (and do) celebrate Tweedy’s recovery, peace and happiness. (We also celebrate his breathtaking self-awareness and sense of humor.) But that shouldn’t stop us from pointing out that on his most recent record, Tweedy wrote a song called “Dawned On Me” about how it dawned on him that he loves his wife. Or that he wrote a song called “Whole Love” about how he wants to show his wife his, uh, whole love.
Tweedy, for his part, rejects the idea that only a tortured artist can succeed: “In fact, I think it’s a very damaging mythology that has grown up around the idea of art being a product of pain, as opposed to being something that’s created in spite of pain,” he told George Stroumboulopoulos. “The part of me that’s able to create managed to create in spite of the problems I was having, almost as if that was the only healthy part of me.” And yet it seems to me that the struggle he describes gave his music a vital spark that lately has been missing.
The fact is that Wilco has now released three consecutive albums about healing, peace, and gratitude, with lyrics that wouldn’t look out of place as cover lines on Oprah’s magazine. (According to Entertainment Weekly, Tweedy wanted to call the new one Get Well Soon, Everybody, which if nothing else encapsulates the record’s themes.) This surging contentment is tricky territory for a rock critic to navigate — you would not begrudge Tweedy his happiness, after all — and so The Whole Love has become that rare rock record to be reviewed as if it were a long instrumental.
But no one is well served by the sentimental critic who grades on a curve. Albums are independent events, able to succeed only on their own merits; your love for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot won’t make The Whole Love any better. Wilco has earned enough goodwill from their long, improbable string of great records that they can survive a little honesty. The Whole Love, gentle and anodyne, plays like an album-length effort to capture the experience of drinking a Diet Sprite.
I’m relieved Jeff Tweedy conquered his demons in a business where so many do not. But as an aesthetic project bliss is a nonstarter, and as Tweedy’s mood has improved the emotional stakes of his records have plunged accordingly. Wilco’s gloomy adventurousness once led them to be called “the American Radiohead.” But now they appear content to record material that recalls their best work without ever quite equalling it, releasing new albums just often enough to justify a perpetual tour. So much for the American Radiohead; say hello to the Midwestern R.E.M.
Speaking of which
I wrote that sentence before R.E.M. announced, on Sept. 21, that they were breaking up. The split occasioned a variety of sharp, well-argued pieces about the band’s career; I particularly enjoyed Eric Harvey’s, in the Atlantic, and Rob Sheffield’s, in Rolling Stone. Because R.E.M. had been around for 31 years, fans long ago began asking the question no one’s quite ready to ask about Wilco — should they have broken up already?
Every once in a while a newer song of theirs would hit you squarely in the gut — there remains a lot to like on Up, and this year’s “Accelerate” sounds pleasingly alive. For the most part these represented the small, false recoveries of a hospital patient slowly succumbing to illness. But Sheffield, for his part, gave them credit for it. It’s an idea worth thinking about:
“I love how they kept pushing in the studio, even when the songs weren’t coming so fast or easy,” he wrote. “I love how they kept making records even when they knew the records weren’t making them look too sharp. I love that they tried. I loved hearing them try. And as long as they kept running on, R.E.M. were an inspiration.”
Chuck Klosterman on Noel Gallagher.
Jeff Tweedy, in the Wall Street Journal, on Wilco’s worst show. “The first time we played the Sasquatch festival [in 2005]. We went on after Arcade Fire, who were just becoming huge at the time. And they are so anthemic. And they’re climbing on the scaffolding and they’re out in the audience beating drums. It was berserk. It was like having your ass handed to you by, like, Cirque du Soleil.”
Tweedy, on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a 9/11 record, in Salon: “That record seemed to, somehow, I guess by focusing on America. That’s really the focus of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — this idea, What is America? I don’t know what America is. A lot of people went through that after 9/11. On top of that, the imagery is so catastrophic.”
Picture of the month: Robyn as a 7-year-old.
Casey Newton is a writer living in San Francisco. He blogs at Crumbler.