Wilco’s latest, Sky Blue Sky, isn’t a return to anything. AM was a pleasant but forgettable extension of Uncle Tupelo, Being There was an alt-country gem in the vein of Exile on Main Street, Summerteeth was the group’s dark pop album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the noisy masterpiece and A Ghost is Born was a feverish account of Jeff Tweedy’s drug problems – each was terrific in its own way. This LP doesn’t sound like any of them; instead it’s something fresh. Sky Blue Sky is a bold step forward for a reinvigorated band.

Angela Cesere
Angry faces make for good music. (Courtesy of Nonesuch)

For Wilco diehards, Sky Blue Sky might initially be underwhelming. At first listen, the songs sound a little too easy, a little too optimistic — like a return to the loose and rootsy Being There era sound without the bleak lyrics. The New York Times wants to know what happened to the noisy bits, and Entertainment Weekly calls it “the best Eagles album the Eagles never made” (and they meant it in a good way . ugh), but that’s oversimplifying things.

The dissonance is still there, and underneath the mellow grooves dispensed by the new lineup, Tweedy is still the same old restless, disgruntled and lovelorn singer/songwriter/husband/father/poet/rock star whose trip to rehab and back has left him with a brighter outlook on life and an album full of songs that feel candidly natural.

The result is moments of real joy mixed in with the requisite darkness, both lyrically and instrumentally. Tweedy has said in multiple interviews that the sessions for this album were the most comfortable and collaborative of his entire career, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Nels Cline, the laid back but virtuosic new lead guitarist.

Much has been made of the relative absence of Jim O’Rourke (he is credited with feedback on one track, percussion on another and the string arrangements on the first and last songs), but the addition of Cline, considered one of the world’s top avant-garde jazz guitarists, has done more to open up Wilco’s sound than the absence of any one person ever could.

Cline’s tasteful fretting on “Impossible Germany” demands facial contortions, is one of the best guitar solos ever laid to wax and is the primary reason the Wake of the Flood era Grateful Dead meets Jailbreak era Thin Lizzy jam is one of Wilco’s finest moments in recent memory. At other times Cline’s jazz background shines through (his solo on “Either Way” has drawn comparisons to Pat Metheny), but his face-melting axe-work on “Side with the Seeds” proves he can blaze like the best of rock’s guitar gods.

Wilco was never a working man’s band anyway, but with Cline slinging strings and human spider (and modern rock’s top drummer) Glenn Kotche banging the skins, the band doesn’t have to rely on overdubs to create a nuanced sound – the six dudes jamming in a room approach is more than sonically satisfying.

As impressive as Cline and Kotche can be, Jeff Tweedy’s pipes are still Wilco’s most crucial instrument. He sounds more confident in his vocal abilities than ever, and while never a very technically proficient singer, he’s able to deliver his stellar melodies with enough gusto to make any deficiencies disappear. His lyrics are less metaphoric than in the past, but are no less powerful. The songs deal with a wide scope of emotions, from issues with rehab (“Sky Blue Sky,” “Please Be Patient with Me”) to anti-Suburbanism (“Hate it Here”) and most poignantly, a song for his widowed grandfather (“On and On and On”).

Despite the nods to ’70s lite-rock, and a far more accessible sound, this won’t be the album that breaks Wilco into the mainstream. But that’s OK. Like Jeff Tweedy says on the DVD that accompanies the deluxe edition, “Right now is a good time to sit down and sing some people some motherfucking songs.”

Those motherfucking songs happen to be some of the best in an already indispensable catalogue.

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
Wilco
Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch

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