Clattering, grinding. The sound of Garageband or ProTools or C-Lab being abused by a recalcitrant teenager. The sound of KidA refracted through ten years of crystalline experience. That’s the sound of “Art Of Almost”, opener of Wilco’s new album.
And then, and then. Palliative strings relieve the ache, soothe the clatter, oil the grinding. And you remember that Wilco have form, what with Kid A compatriot Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and arguably, bits of predecessor Summerteeth). After all, they’ve been doing this whole rebirth thing as long as our maudlin, pale-faced Radioheaders. To my mind, a damn sight more effectively.
Tell me. Who would you rather listen to? Griper-In-Chief Thom Yorke with yet another of his apocalyptic millionaire rock star whines, or Jeff Tweedy, a painkiller-addicted, confused artist, who at least has the sense to try to connect to human souls beyond “We’re all doomed!!!”? And to try and make music that doesn’t just copy Warp Records circa 1993? I can’t remember the last time I listened to a Radiohead album all the way through, but Wilco albums still get a regular play round Casa L&L.`
So, another album. How do a band like Wilco keep things interesting, eight albums in? They’ve gone from pretty much inventing alt-country with A.M. and Being There, to Going Pop (of sorts) with Summerteeth, then wandering into a whole world of bizarre record company shenanigans and sonic adventurousness with YHF. Since then, there’s been krautrock, quietrock, and something of a return to their rocky, country, folky sound on Wilco (The Album)1. The Whole Love takes their more lively sound of The Album and adds a bit more pep, a bit more chunkiness, and takes away a little of the meandering Nels Cline guitar interludes. In some ways this is A Bad Thing, what with Nels Cline being the greatest living incarnation of the Tom Verlaine style of chiming guitar wondrousness. But then again, you don’t always want your songs to go on for hours on end2.
Indeed, only two songs out of twelve go on for more than four minutes. Fairly short and snappy is order of the day, and even songs like “Born Alone” which start reasonably tamely rapidly burst into life with guitar squalls and all that. The two longer songs, fittingly the opener and closer, both pass by far quicker than you’d expect, with “One Sunday Morning” feeling nothing like its 12 minutes. That number is right up there with gorgeous Wilco greats.
Other times, The Whole Love feels like it could be re-titled The Whole Of Wilco’s Career In One Record. “Born Alone” could happily sit on Summerteeth; with the scansion of “I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels\Spit and swallowed opioids” reminiscent of “Bible-black pre-dawn” off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Sunloathe” could fit on A Ghost Is Born; “Dawned On Me”, The Album; “Standing O” could be crowbarred onto Being There without anyone noticing too much was amiss. We could go on like this, but frankly I expect both you and I have better things to do with our time. This is in no way a bad thing, and the least you’d expect of a band with so many records under their belt is that it sounds like the last seven albums of theirs. But you do, to an extent, expect Wilco to do something new, even when that something new isn’t always as fantastically listenable as their six-year purple patch.
Combining the sounds of their previous records and throwing in a handful of new ideas works well. Helps too, that Jeff Tweedy’s voice is still on great form, with unexpected treats like “Whole Love” screwballing into falsetto; Nels Cline’s keeps on chucking curveballs your way, and the rest of the band are as tight as ever. Looks like that loft of theirs is a good place to be making albums then. Maybe recording in the place where they’ve been practising and writing records for all those years has brought ghosts to the surface?
In the grand scheme of things, The Whole Love is nowhere near the best thing they’ve done. Certainly a far more lovable record than anything they’ve done since YHF, The Whole Love at least makes you want to listen again, and again, unlike good chunks of The Album or A Ghost Is Born. Time will tell, of course, but slowly, slowly, the album’s been building up into one big earworm. A solid 7, going on 8.
1 Still one of my favourite album titles ever.
2 Wilco are the only band I can recall seeing in the last ten years where I’ve gone to the bar during a song, what with me being a borderline neurotic freak that can’t walk away from a band I like whilst they are playing3.
3 On which note – I didn’t go to gigs for years for fear that they wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I’d only do festivals, as though that made it somehow better. Only a friend dragging me to see The Go Betweens reunion gigs got me to stop being such a dick4.
4 I’m still a dick in all sorts of other ways though.
(Photo courtesy of the marvellous LoftLife Magazine)