As glitchy synths and swelling strings create a brooding and ominous mood on the first song of The Whole Love, two thoughts come to mind: “There’s no way this is Wilco — someone must have mislabeled this .zip file” and “Is this … Radiohead?” After a minute of bleeps and bloops, though, lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s creaking croon cracks in and quells any previously pondered mistakes. With its aggressive approach — full-on with a two-minute breakdown as searing as anything the band’s ever done — “Art of Almost” effectively ends the Chicago sextet’s two-album bout of soft melodies and safe, sometimes contrived musicianship.
The Whole Love
Admittedly, the majority of the album showcases Wilco revisiting previously tread ground, but luckily the remnants of the band’s best work are visible throughout. After all, with such prolific and revered past material, back catalogue comparisons are inevitable. The title track replicates the throbbing acoustic guitar part on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s “Kamera”; “Capitol City” recalls the crispy springtime feel of “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” off of Summerteeth; the existentially themed “Born Alone” connects to the melancholy yet cheery sounds and subject matter of A Ghost Is Born‘s “Theologians”; “Dawned on Me” grinds and churns with almost as much ambition as Being There‘s “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”
One of The Whole Love‘s keys to success lies in the guitar playing of Nels Cline. An undeniable talent, Cline has enhanced Wilco’s live show since he joined the band in 2004, but many continually question his studio contributions. It’d be inaccurate to say Cline “holds back” on the album — as “Standing O” and “I Might” contain some face-melting guitar work. But instead of noodling around for unnecessarily long bridges and breakdowns, Cline focuses his efforts a bit more, which produces some great results for the album on the whole. For those who doubted him before, it seems like Cline has officially found his place in the band.
Another strength is in the pure songwriting ability of Tweedy. Wilco’s last two releases contained some of Tweedy’s most uninspiring work, and many believed the now-44 year-old didn’t have any gas left in his creative tank. But on The Whole Love, time and time again interesting-yet-accessible melodies are paired with compelling lyrics.
If “Art of Almost” proves that Wilco can still be daring and borderline experimental, then “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” illustrates that Tweedy has all but mastered the acoustic ballad. Lines like “Something sad keeps moving / So I wandered around / I fell in love with the burden / Holding me down” prove his lyrical expertise is back in full force. However, it’s not fair to give Tweedy all the credit. The supporting cast contributes with tasteful xylophone plinks, tender piano injections, and the soothing sounds of brushes on the snare drum. The song hardly builds, but rather treads along — for a full 12 minutes. But like all great songs, it feels about half as long. And with its gently fading away outro, a few more minutes could have been included with hardly a notice.
With an album title as blatantly sappy as The Whole Love, it seems like Wilco is clearly trying to tell its fanbase something. The name can be read like a call to arms to all listeners. Similar to the line, “A sonic shoulder for you to cry on … Wilco will love you baby” from “Wilco (The Song),” the album title directly addresses its audience. This time, it seems to invite fans to fully embrace its music, despite its minor missteps in its last couple albums. And if you give all your love and attention to the album, it’s sure to throw some back your way in return.