RATING: 4 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore
For an album that is thematically based in the mysteries of human nature and love, the opening track is remarkably straightforward. “Are you under the impression / This isn’t your life? / Do you dabble in depression?” Jeff Tweedy inquires in “Wilco (the song)” before declaring that “Wilco will love you baby.”
But don’t let the unabashed directness — even Tweedy admits it may appear cheesy at first — of this opening track deter you from taking the album seriously.
Immediately after “Wilco (the song)” fades out, the heartbeat of “Deeper Down” steadily fades in with the crash of a cymbal. This song is more subtle and serves as a reminder that the band has not lost its flair for more experimental fare, even after its flirtation with the more straightforward songwriting and jam band mentalities present on 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. Aside from the standard acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums, this track also incorporates lap steel (which is becoming a standard Wilco instrument, particularly since the arrival of Nels Cline), loops, harpsichord, Mellotron cello and vibraphone, bowed piano (go ahead: look up “bowed piano” — it’s wild…), synthesizer, and cimbalom. Based on the list of instrumental credits alone, it is apparent Wilco is not through with the sonic experiments that have earned them fame throughout their career, ever since the opening moments of “Misunderstood” on 1996’s Being There.
“Deeper Down” also begins to tackle the core subjects covered by the album, namely the uncertainties in both our relationships and personal lives. As Tweedy sings, “Out beyond the telescope’s pry / Up above the tallest Dutch dope high / He realized / This mystery is his.” The unknown elements that the singer is concerned with here are not the ones that can be analyzed by using scientific equipment or engaging in a study. Rather, personal demons and mysteries are on display for examination throughout the song and the album.
As the next verse begins to employ the metaphor of the ocean floor for the depths of the human mind, a creaking sound invokes the image of a deep sea vehicle moving farther and farther down into the watery depths.
This is the one track on the album that is not written solely by Tweedy. A collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, “Deeper Down” is the perfect bookend to the album proper.
“One Wing” returns to the lighthearted lyricism of the opening song, the title metaphor of this third track comparing a full relationship to a bird (“We once belonged to a bird”) and the aftermath of a breakup to the separation of those all-important feathery appendages (“One wing will never ever fly, dear / Neither yours nor mine, I fear / We can only wave goodbye”). Again, this type of songwriting may seem worthy of a dismissal at first, but it works in context here.
The fourth track is anything but lighthearted. Told from the manic perspective of one who has just committed murder (online sources suggest the victim was the narrator’s girlfriend), “Bull Black Nova” is the sonic standout here, being easily the most experimental track on the album. Spin‘s review of the album suggests that this song is out of place in what is largely a body of traditionally arranged songs, but this is not the case. After all, what will drive a person to killing another — particularly a loved one — is perhaps the greatest human mystery of all.
Driven by a steady beat and arrangement of electric guitars, this track fittingly evokes the mental hysteria of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Indeed, the mystery dealt with in this song is perhaps best described as how one might handle the aftermath of having committed such a heinous crime.
The first of two acoustic masterpieces, “You and I” prominently features the first duet to be included on a Wilco album. Accompanied by Leslie Feist, Tweedy presents this moving track with a fittingly subdued instrumental performance by the other members of the band. Moreover, this song advances the motif of the album. As Tweedy and Feist sing, “Oh, I don’t need to know / Everything about you / Oh, I don’t want to know / And you don’t need to know / That much about me.” This song considers the reality that two people may still be strangers, regardless of how close they become. While that may sound negative, it is turned around in the song as a positive and natural element of any relationship.
Tweedy later goes it alone on “Solitaire,” the eighth track. This is another acoustic gem highlighted by Tweedy’s understated but heartfelt double-tracked vocals. Lyrically, this is the perfect example of a simple but powerfully written song. (Click here to see the Laptop Session this song inspired.)
“You Never Know” is the first single; it comes halfway through the album, proving that Wilco was only warming up. This song nicely features all of the elements that make this an excellent band: Tweedy’s vocals, Cline’s lead guitar, Sansone’s piano, Jorgensen’s organ, and the typically strong bass and drums of Stirratt and Kotche, respectively. What stands out about this track is that it is clearly Wilco in sound and style, yet, as several other reviews have noted, the stylistic touches are strongly reminiscent of one of the best songwriter/guitarists of all time: George Harrison. It is nearly impossible to listen to “You Never Know” and not hear Harrison’s characteristic flourishes in the mix. In a recent interview, Tweedy suggested that the similarities were not planned, but that he was pleased to offer an homage.
No other journalist has pointed out that the Hammond organ stylings on “You and I” sound like a reference to Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” so I’ll just throw that one out there, too…
The second half of the album is equally as strong as the first. “I’ll Fight” (a standout track) and “Sonny Feeling” (highlighted by Cline’s lap steel guitar licks) are a powerful combination, occupying the ninth and tenth slots on the album. The former is a statement of purpose, evoking Biblical references to drive the point home. The latter evades an entirely concrete interpretation, but it is clear that the song centers around a pivotal experience in a high school student’s life. The middle is perhaps the strongest section of this song, as Tweedy sings, “You know it’s true / The other shoe / It waits for you / What can you do? / Remember to show gratitude / The darkest night is nothing new.”
In addition to the aforementioned “Solitaire,” the true highlights of the second half are certainly the two acoustic-based songs “Country Disappeared” and “Everlasting Everything.” “Country Disappeared” is just about as political as you’ll hear Wilco (in song at least), but it is still best described as poetic and personal. If “Deeper Down” is a fitting thematic bookend at the opening of the album, then “Everlasting Everything” is the ideal closer. As Tweedy sings, “Oh I know this might sound sad / But everything goes, both the good and the bad / So it all adds up, and you should be glad / Everlasting love is all you had.” This is apparently what is to be found after digging “deeper down,” namely the realization that a life driven by love is worthwhile. With this, Wilco (the album) turns out to be perhaps the most positive release in the Wilco catalog.
As “Everlasting Everything” fades out and “Wilco (the song)” thunders in, listeners will find it difficult to pop the CD out of the player or change the selection on the iPod. And this is just as a great album should be. Is Wilco (the album) the perfect record, or even a masterpiece? The answer is undoubtedly in the negative. And yet there is something compelling, soothing, passionate, and masterful about it.
This is the story of a band putting out a strong seventh release, continuing to impress after an already impressive career.