** This is the fourth in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **
By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5/5 stars
There are those albums that are easily inserted into categories, labeled by genre. Then, there are those albums which do not, those veritable square pegs hovering above round holes.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot belongs to the latter.
Being that this is one of the most written-about albums of the decade, there have been just as many genre classifications as there have been reviewers. Regardless of the fact that much of Wilco was formed from ex-Uncle Tupelo members, it is certainly not alt-country, although the trademark rough edges are present in all the right places. It is not the country-tinged folk rock of Wilco’s debut release, A.M., although Tweedy’s leads sometimes attain that same wonderful raw quality that was so prominent on their first album. It is not the acoustic rock of Being There, though the acoustic guitars are still quite prominent in the mixes.
Indeed, Summerteeth, their third album, can now be viewed as the proving grounds and a stepping stone to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — in a sense, as the Today! to their Pet Sounds, the Highway 61 Revisited to their Blonde on Blonde.
It is the clarity of overall vision and focus, as well as the variety of sounds and styles on this record that makes Yankee Hotel Foxtrot one of the best rock albums of the decade. In many ways, Wilco’s previous recordings were all leading up to this masterpiece, an album that yielded a slew of alternate takes, arrangements, outtakes, and additional mixes. They poured all they knew about songwriting, performing, and recording into this album, and that is what is most apparent in the tight, finely crafted tunes, every bit as much as it is evident across the sprawling, chaotic landscapes of songs like the opening track.
It has become somewhat difficult to separate the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release. Certainly, when they set out to record their fourth studio album, they couldn’t have predicted the poor reception of the record label that would lead to them being dropped from their contract. They couldn’t have envisioned breaking ground on the now-standard practice of streaming their album in full before its official release. They couldn’t have known that the story around the album would sell so many copies and overnight transform their band’s image from a fairly obscure alt-country band to the folk/alternative rock trendsetters that they are known as today. And yet, all the same, these things came to pass, filmed every step of the way by Sam Jones for the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.
Moreso than ever, this is an album that now needs to be taken, at least initially, on its own merits. Nine years after it was recorded and eight years after the controversy and hype have subsided, we are left with the task of locating Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among the greatest albums of the decade, and perhaps of all-time.
Thankfully, it has stood the test of time.
Listening to this album is an entertaining, sobering, and all-around interesting experience from the fade in on track one to the fade out on track eleven. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is, of course, the flagship song of the record, establishing both the tone and the mood for the other ten tracks to come. On the one hand, it is a song with such a simple chord progression and melody that it could be — and has been — easily translated to a solo acoustic performance. Still, something is lost without, on the other hand, the reluctant bass lines, synthesized sounds, and haphazard yet steady drums. The sum total of the instruments and vocals introduces a narrator who sounds decidedly detached, inviting us into a realm where we imagine and remember our saddest moments, the conflicts that have defined our romantic lives.
After the final burst of distortion, the second song, “Kamera,” wastes no time in laying out a much more polished folk-rock sound, describing uncertainty as to “which lies I have been hiding, and which echoes belong.” Tweedy continues, “I’ve counted out days to see how far I’ve driven in the dark with echoes in my heart.” It is a pretty song; it is a catchy song. My only reservation here is lyrically — for instance, why spell the title with a “K” rather than a “C”? As Robert Christgau seemed to point out in his own review of the album, any major concerns about the album’s quality will most likely be focused around the lyrical quality. While I think he is, as per usual, deaf to the quality of this excellent album, I will admit that I vacillate as to the meaningfulness of some of the lyrics.
Overall, the album speaks to me, and yet, some of the songs may be found shaky on an individual inspection.
But this should be for you to decide as you listen.
“Radio Cure” is next, bringing the pace down to a crawl, expounding on the effects of distance on love. It is followed by “War on War,” a protest song of sorts that seems to attack simple-mindedness with simplicity. If nothing else, Tweedy cries the universal truth that, “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive…” One can suppose that this is not necessarily meant as a commentary on physical violence, but moreso in the context of the romantic relationship in shambles that is described throughout the album.
In “Jesus Etc.” and “Ashes of American Flags,” the lyrics rely on allusions to Christianity and the American dream, respectively. In the former, the singer attempts to reassure a Christ-like lover who is set on leaving, “last cigarettes” being all she can get before she sets about “turning your orbit around.” The mournful quality of the latter is unsurpassed, particularly as Tweedy repeats the chorus: “All my lies are only wishes; I know I would die if I could come back new.” Again, there is the Christian — or perhaps Buddhist — metaphor of a death leading to a rebirth. We can assume that this relationship being referred to is dying or already dead, and the question, of course, remains: what will be reborn in its place? The song ends with the singer “saluting” the ashes of American flags, “and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags.”
Anyone who has gone through a breakup after a meaningful relationship has undoubtedly undergone this phase of the healing process.
The seventh and eighth tracks sidestep a bit, the first — “Heavy Metal Drummer” — taking a nostalgic and upbeat flashback to memories of past summers filled with rock concerts and parties and the second — “I’m the Man Who Loves You” — coming across as a manic return to the present, the singer declaring, “If I could, you know I would just hold your hand and you’d understand: I’m the man who loves you!”
Subsequently, we learn that the singer’s declaration of love has not had the desired effect. Indeed, “Pot Kettle Black” is an important transition point on the record as Tweedy sings of coming to terms with the realities of the relationship that exists between these two people. Its abstract lyrics are no attempt to dodge specificity; rather, this is a great case study for how the mind perceives the breakdown of something so dear.
The final two tracks provide another excellent couplet in this eleven line album. “Poor Places” establishes itself as an anthem for isolation, with the singer ultimately decreeing, “It’s hot in the poor places tonight; I’m not going outside.” This is not an entirely unexpected turn of events. After all, the album has covered a lot of melancholy ground, including what can arguably be construed as failed attempts at jump-starting a broken relationship.
When the final track arrives, it is somewhat of an enigma. “Reservations” is one of the simplest, saddest, and most sincere love songs in the Wilco catalog. The refrain, “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” can be interpreted in several different ways — as a final attempt at reconciliation, as a statement after having reunited with the person (although there is less evidence for this), or perhaps most directly as parting words. Judging from the ominous silence that follows, complete with sounds that can only be compared to a violent wind, the final interpretation seems the most likely.
From beginning to end, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of those rare albums that connects on both mental and emotional levels, calling on the listener to think in order to deconstruct meaning from the songs and utilizing all the right sounds to convey all the right feelings. This was the album that singlehandedly led me into a breakup, nursed me through the depression that followed, and brought me back to the love of my life. (“What was I thinking when I let go of you?…”)
As the disclaimers read in those lovely commercials about diet pills, my results may not be typical, but my life is better for having experienced this album. I hope — and have faith — that this album will have even half the effect on you that it did on me.