Graham Reid | | 2 min read
The career trajectory of Wilco, helmed by Jeff Tweedy, has been fascinating to follow, if not always easy for many.
From alt.country through to ambitious and complex pop in the late 90s, they then made the "Radiohead leap" with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 where the experimentation, noise factor and angularity of ther material was critically hailed and saw the album appear in many "best of" lists.
But equally it alienated some who just found it, like Radiohead's most recent work, a bit too difficult.
The story of the making of that album -- in all its raw emotion and personality clashes -- was told on the superb doco I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, one of the essential rockumentaries (see tag).
A line-up change and Tweedy's increasing dependency/depression etc were behind A Ghost is Born of three years ago, another that was widely hailed and enjoyed commercial success -- although you suspect Tweedy had found a new audience by this time rather than keeping the old.
If Tweedy has used Wilco to work out his demons then listeners of all persuasions are in for a surprise: he's now happier and cleaner, wanting to be more direct lyrically and musically unadorned -- and all this is reflected in this new album which is full of plaintive ballads (some asking for forgiveness, others about acceptance), owes much to the 70s singer-songwriter movement, and even spirals out like Steely Dan on tracks like Impossible Germany.
The title track is a gorgeous acoustic strum coloured by gentle electric guitar lines and Nels Cline on swooning lap steel as Tweedy sings, "I survived, that's good enough for now".
Tweedy doesn't get much "happier" than that in truth, and everywhere he sounds almost reluctant to accept this new-found state, but that adds a tension and an undercurrent which makes for some interesting ambivalence.
It is the most musically approachable Wilco album in years and Tweedy in interviews is saying things like, Sky Blue Sky is "geared toward expressing some sense of acceptance. Trying to find some comfort in music, my relationship. Trying to allow that comfort is there in your life".
He denies that happiness isn't a good place to write from (in a rock culture which seems to prefer angst over acceptance) and that he "just wanted to make a record that was nice to listen to. What's wrong with that?" Nothing at all -- and this is certainly a step away from noise into allowing his cracked vocals to take centre-stage on songs strong on downbeat and sometimes mellow-mood melodies.
You don't have to be too smart to hear flickers of folksy Neil Young and melancholy Lennon here.
Already some critics are bemoaning what has been lost -- an edge, an ichoate anger, lyrical abstractness -- but know this also: Sky Blue Sky debuted at #4 in the States, the highest charting Wilco album so far.
The Tortured Artist Albums by Wilco are still out there and recommended, but it seems a lot of people like to hear Jeff Tweedy a little more "happy".
Early copies of Sky Blue Sky came with an excellent DVD of eight of the 12 tracks performed live, and interviews with the band and Tweedy talking about the genesis of some of the material. It is worth seeking that version out.