Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, is trying – he has been for a while. He’s trying to get his record out to the people, he’s trying to make a good album, he’s trying to change Wilco (and therefore alt-country’s core) as we know it. And as he sings on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s opening track, he’s trying to break your heart. And though he doesn’t quite do it (You jaded modern youth!), he comes close.
First, though, let us praise Wilco for giving – yes, giving – this record to their fans. Foxtrot has been finished for almost a year. Wilco’s (former) label, Reprise, wouldn’t release it. So the band bought the master tapes from the label and made the album available for free download on their website. Let us praise the basic ideas of e-commerce and Wilco’s apparent (and probably intentional) lack of understanding of them. See, the band paid their own cash money to buy the record from Reprise so that they could turn around and make the album available for free to anyone who happened by their webpage. (What is it about bands whose names begin with “W” and overly generous audio-video download pages?) For this act alone, Wilco deserves a Grammy.
But they will never get one, of course. This artist support of fan-based bands goes against everything that stupidly stern-looking Californian lectured about during this year’s awards ceremony. The industry would like you to believe that there exists only one way for you to access a band and it’s music, and vice versa. But alas, the little man behind the curtain has been called out.
And Jeff Tweedy knows that there’s more than one way to seduce a listener, although it seems like he made Foxtrot to please himself and is just letting the rest of the world in to enjoy along with him, if they should so choose. And so they should choose. (Side note: I have never understood the critical dismissal of an album based solely on its level of self-indulgence.)
At first, Foxtrot has a faintly concept album aftertaste. You don’t notice it so much while actively listening to the record, but when you think about it and remember parts, and listen a few times, things start to come together. It’s rather cinematic, Foxtrot is, with a well-sequenced series of rising and falling intensities. From the sweepingly majestic “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the punchy “War on War,” through the moody “Ashes of American Flags” and romping peak of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” to the soundscape break down of “Reservations,” Tweedy and the boys project confidence in their flaunted fragility and light heartedness in their seemingly dour demeanors.
A lot of the old Wilco sound remains recognizable on Foxtrot. “Kamera,” “War on War” and “Pot Kettle Black” could fit on any record from A.M. on up. Strum, drum, sing (and throw in a pedal steel or fiddle for good measure) – the alt-country formula survives. But other, more adventurous tracks (these are the ones that must have scared off Reprise) like “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Radio Cure” sound as though Tweedy has been casually listening to early Neutral Milk Hotel sound salads: Jumbled collages punctuated by heartbreakingly sung, slightly wandering melodies.
The most important advances for Wilco musically involve, oddly, their new subdued groovy-ness. Not that they groove like a jam band now, but on a few Foxtrot songs, the band learns to musically maneuver a little more while remaining within their context – like Leonard Cohen did with New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Call it departure, call it growth – call it Foxtrot.