Wilco - The Whole Love

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Wilco’s The Whole Love starts off with a game changer musically. Gone are the rather passive, light and airy intro songs that have kicked, er, led off the band’s albums of recent memory (“Wilco – the song”… really?). Instead, we have an energetic reimagining of the band’s ability that suggests they found Radiohead’s (lost) muse.  “The Art of Almost” delivers band growth in one celebratory, funky package, from start to finish, and, almost as well, from restart to finish. Well, dang! This is going to be good!

Well, it is. But, inevitably with this band, not in the way I might have hoped from the leading track. Songs 2-11 all but alternate between tuneful pop leanings and the passive, light, and airy acoustic sketches of which we’re so accustomed.  What’s surprising is that there are no electronic jolts, no startling effects, no sonic hair raising intrusions into the mood.  Wilco may as well be known as a band that chooses to kill vibes in this way, either reminding the listener that it’s a Wilco album and not something you can relax with, or otherwise infuriate a listener who is enjoying the groove.  I like the new CD.  I’ll call it maturity.   Nels Cline, the talented lead guitarist who inserts “ersatz” guitar effects everywhere,  continues to do so here, but tastefully… adding more subtle expressions to whatever lead singer Jeff Tweedy is singing about (the tuneful songs) or deadpanning (the less tuneful songs).

And what is Tweedy singing about these days? Well, relationships still, at least when it’s coherent. The second song, “I Might,” is a winner, if you hear Tweedy’s voice as just another instrument. But with lyrics such as:

You come on
If the
Solar Car’s coming
I’m home
The Magna Carta’s
On a Slim Jim blood

Perhaps I don’t share the same perceptive space that Tweedy relates. That would be because I don’t do drugs. Or, perhaps he subscribes to the McCartney school of song writing, finding words that sound like they fit until something halfway cohesive arises from the random. I think that’s actually part of it. But, I’m even more inclined to suspect that Tweedy, with all of Indie-music nation reviewers secured in his pocket, is just playing a joke to see if anyone cares.  After all, it sounds good enough, right?

So, amongst his happy acoustic guitar and the sublimated weirdness that the band brings, is there a sense of anything lyrically elsewhere on the CD?  In places, yes.  And the lyrics are conveniently included in the CD booklet, so one can (or can not) find a particular meaning.  Often, his vocal tone can be related to the moods suggested by his occasional word choices: “waiting forever,” “I was born to die alone,” “you wouldn’t like it here,” “I mope and I cry and I attack,” “an embrace at the wake” … Happy stuff.

However, that’s not the complete story.  First, there is a lack of Tweedy’s periodic cynicism.  I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but it’s different.   Instead, everything (the parts that make sense anyway) all have to do with how Tweedy is getting along in the world. 

There’s a certain hopefulness, if not optimism.  That’s a change. “Sunloathe,” one of the more pensive songs, doesn’t reach out to victory, but not losing is a forward step.  The catchy “Dawned on me” is as much a love song as Tweedy seems capable of writing, even if in the context of a long distance relationship. “Open Mind” finds him hoping of what could be, even if he’s certain it’s not possible. “Standing O” has a cheery musical flavor reflecting on his own growth, never mind that the special someone doesn’t recognize it. 

Well, so it’s not an optimistic album, but everything is relative.  I’m glad that I’m not living in the same world of inspiration in which Tweedy apparently finds himself. But that doesn’t mean that struggles do not lean to good art.

The bookend to the length “Art of Almost” is a very unusual long song.  It doesn’t linger forever with a chorus (“Hey Jude”) or tackle multiple music ideas (any Yes song).  Instead, “One Sunday Morning,” about the loss of someone’s father, strolls its way through 12 minutes of what, if one listens, is much greater than an extended breezy ballad.  In that it’s reenergized periodically by an excellent guitar riff, it doesn’t get tired… it just keeps on going. 

Wilco remains a little off-course for a larger audience. The tendency towards lyrical nonsense and the recurring habit of killing a vibe with obnoxious musical insertions can do that. Still, while unsurprising after the first track, this CD seems the most mature album for the band musically. All the parts are fitting together, benefitting the whole. If Tweedy would just find a Lennon to keep his effort honest…

Recommended Songs: “Art of Almost,” “I Might,” “Dawned on Me”

4 of 5 STARS



1 comment :

  1. Most interesting. For a large part, I consider groupd to be almost mystical in their ability to blend an entire series of sounds into something that I enjoy listening to over and over. So when I read your comment "...recurring habit of killing a vibe with obnoxious musical insertions.." I was intrigued. Sure enough, at about 2:08 it happened. Very cool to see the mood deconstruct itself in a few seconds over a few notes.