Wilco's self-aware, pleasantly imitative record

BY MIKE KUNTZ
Daily Arts Writer
Published July 5, 2009

Wilco
Wilco (The Album)
Nonesuch

Courtesy of Nonesuch

3.5 out of 5 stars

So there’s a camel with an orange party hat on the cover of the new Wilco record.

At a time in the Wilco camp where some comic relief is much needed — due to the death of co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who was with the band during its most critically successful period — a picture prominently displaying a Bactrian camel (whose two humps and neck form an apt “W”) in front of a German restaurant in Milwaukee is probably just what the doctor ordered.

Wilco (The Album) is the second studio release with the current six-man lineup — seventh in all — and is a series of meticulously crafted tracks, albeit with half-inspired songwriting. From the album’s cover to its title to its leadoff track “Wilco (The Song)”, it appears that Wilco (the tour) will not be a particularly pensive or introspective venture. But that may not be such a bad thing.

While it’s definitely a sea change for a Wilco album to read like a run-through, it’s actually refreshing in its lightness. With arguably more to offer than its predecessor Sky Blue Sky, the record plays like a retrospective of tried-and-true Wilco sounds, from Summerteeth pop to the mid-tempo Rhodes-rockers of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to the barroom wreckage of Being There. For the first time in a long while, Jeff Tweedy and company sound like they’re comfortable right where they are — and they’re having fun.

Lighter rockers “I’ll Flight” and “One Wing” are deceptively simple, while “Solitaire” is a modest folk tune with a Nick Drake feel supporting Tweedy’s humbled musings: “Took too long to see / I was wrong to believe in me only.”

“Deeper Down” is a clear standout, with dotted harpsichord lines and guitarist Nels Cline’s masterful noodlings filling the voids between verses. “Bull Black Nova,” easily the album’s most daring moment, is a frantic murder ballad with mechanized guitars and a red-handed Tweedy panicking: “It’s in my head / There’s blood in the sink / I can’t calm down / I can’t think.”

But where musical innovation elsewhere on the album seems more or less an afterthought, the album isn’t completely without ambition.

Most bands admire The Beatles, though few, if any, ever intentionally rip them off as a tip of the hat. Wilco (The Album) is littered with Beatles homages, highlighting in particular the sophisticated yet playful pop of Abbey Road with its arrangements, instrumentation and tone. Though there’s plenty of Steely Dan’s Aja and Television’s Marquee Moon to be found as well — add to that enough compression and sheen to make Jeff Lynn blush — when the “Penny Lane”-ish horn resounds in the coda of “Everlasting Everything,” it's obvious that the resemblance to The Beatles is more than a coincidence.

Knowing nods to the Fab Four run amok on Wilco, including the virtual remaking of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” on “You Never Know,” the Lennon-ized vocals of “Sonny Feeling” and how “Country Disappeared” fuses Abbey Road’s “Golden Slumbers” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” so effortlessly Paul McCartney should share a writing credit.

But despite all of the winks and clues, it’s less likely that Tweedy and co. are making a move to usurp the Liverpudlians from their musical throne as they are simply admiring from up close. In true Beatles style, they’re having a good laugh.

Wilco (The Album) is not a grand artistic statement, nor does it try to be. Weighing this album against the rest of the Wilco catalog would be unfair — this is not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 2. Here is a band willfully resting on their laurels, choosing simple yet well-crafted songs, deft arrangements and a much-needed chuckle in favor of attempting to meet the impossible standards set by their fans or the ghosts of past releases.

As arguably one of America’s best live bands (those unconvinced should seek the newly-released live documentary "Ashes of American Flags") and creators of a handful of masterpiece albums, Tweedy and co. have little left to prove. And having already scaled the mountain of a long and varied career, can anyone really fault them for taking in the view?