On “Shrug and Destroy,” the ostensible comedown on Wilco’s latest release, Schmilco, frontman Jeff Tweedy repeats four words — “Nothing is left, rejoice”— as the final chords ring out. Four words, as enigmatic as four words can be and yet entirely accurate. Wilco rests comfortably atop the perch of 21st century folk rockers; they don’t have much to prove. It’s appropriate, then, that Schmilco — clocking in at 37 minutes long — continues the trend of last year’s 34-minute Star Wars and is one of their most succinct releases to date. Short in length, there’s a palpable innocence to the album. Instead of walking us through emotion, they reflect upon it, and there’s something peaceful in that.
The opening track, “Normal American Kids,” is emblematic of this style. The relatively isolated vocals and vulnerable lyricism are fitting, and the combo is a nice reminder of the early moments of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” — the magnum opus of an opener on their magnum opus of an album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy’s winding voice sounds as genuine now as it did in 2002 alongside a lone acoustic guitar. He goes out on one of his furthest extending limbs yet with lines like “All of my spirit leaked like a cut / I knew what I needed would never be enough / I was too high to change my bed / Always afraid to be a normal American kid.” For a band that’s been accompanied by seemingly every possible instrument, such simplicity is both welcome and well-executed. In fact, it essentially legitimizes their vulnerability. Wilco seems to be imperfect by nature and stoner-ish in character — this winding ballad of solitude consequently tells more than enough about where Tweedy’s been and, possibly, informs us about the future direction of the band.
This introspectiveness hasn’t previously been on such an album-wide display. On “If I Ever Was a Child” there are snippets like, “I’ve never been alone / Long enough to know / If I ever was a child.” Satisfyingly straightforward “Someone to Lose” finds Tweedy wishing an ex-lover has her heart broken again, all the while trying to understand his own place in it all. “Locator,” “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” and “Just Say Goodbye,” each of which has its own sound founded in stripped down instrumentals, gracefully close out the album. Maybe Tweedy and co. feel content (or at least comfortable) enough with their past work to make what most would consider, more or less, a 12-track long musical diary, but maybe not. He has entwined many of his songs with a hint of apathy, so while fully absorbing the band’s new material is important, overly digging for some type of read on their trajectory really might just be superfluous. The music is only there to feel.
And, at its purest, Schmilco is 12 tracks of calm sentiment. The grandeur from “I’m the Man Who Loves You” isn’t there, but it’s just the right feel for Wilco this time around.