Wilco: Cousin (digital outlets)

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Meant to Be
Wilco: Cousin (digital outlets)

It could be said that Wilco -- now almost 30 years into a career and Cousin being their 13th studio album -- have been on a roll lately.

But weren't they always?

On the release of last year's Cruel Country, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy said they'd never been comfortable about being considered “alt.country”.

Fair enough, because their 1999 album Summerteeth was along the axis of embellished pastoral pop and power-pop. It's follow-up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) was a swerve into experimental alt.rock, as courageous and different as U2's Achtung Baby (1991) and Radiohead's OK Computer (1997) had been in their careers.

After the groundbreaking YHF, Tweedy could take Wilco wherever he pleased: Dylanesque country-rock, demanding rock, folk-rock, acoustic songs, mainstream pop . . .

But with Cruel Country they embraced, not alt.country -- a genre Tweedy felt had become conservative and stagnant – but a kind of neo-traditional country.

Given Wilco's unpredictability, Cousin would never be similar to Cruel Country, certainly not when produced by the daringly experimental Welsh musician Cate Le Bon.

Outside influences have benefited Wilco: avant-guitarist Jim O'Rourke came in for the disruptive Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and co-produced their wonderful 2004 follow-up A Ghost is Born.

Le Bon's fingerprints are rarely obvious on Cousin but are there in the electro-beat and static ending of Infinite Surprise, moulding Tweedy's downbeat Ten Dead about yet another mass shooting into a muted neo-psychedelic mini-epic (part country-blues, part weary Beatles 1968) and for the melodically angular and haiku-like lyrics of Sunlight Ends which evolve from faltering beats and half-complete melodies: “You dance like the dust in the light where the sun comes in. And I’m following ‘til the sunlight ends”.

Lyrics are refined, mysterious, opaque and spare (Tweedy's speak-sings A Bowl and a Pudding where an enchanting melody gradually emerges) and Le Bon allows his sand-blown vocals to rest easily in the luminous pop simplicity of Evicted: “I’m evicted from your heart, I deserve it”.

The title track is a crisp percussion-driven piece with New Wave inflections, the tired Levee has a weaving guitar line in the mid-ground, and although Pittsburg opens like backporch acoustic folk it develops into a disconcerting landscape of synths and a low rumination: “Time slows like a new Van Gogh, setting fire to the frame. I’m a flag where the wind won’t blow”.

If Cruel Country was Wilco circling back to origins, Cousin takes a gently deft approach to the experimentation they've explored.

It's identifiably Wilco. But different.

Weren't they always?

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You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here

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