Wilco is one of the most interesting rock bands of an era that hasn't produced a lot of truly interesting bands. And one of the most interesting aspects has been leader Jeff Tweedy's steadfastness to his artistic vision and muse, all expectations be damned, while still maintaining a dedicated and almost rabid fan base at the same time.
The band's seventh studio release actually satirizes the notion of such fan devotion, turning it into a gag of sorts, on the opening track, "Wilco (the song)," with its lyrical refrain of "Wilco will love you, baby," especially if the fan needs "an aural shoulder to cry on." The Stones and Beach Boys have both "loved" their fans in song and album titles, respectively ... but neither was bold enough to actually put their names right in a song. It isn't totally tongue-in-cheek, however. Tweedy is a well-known "prisoner of rock 'n' roll" (or whatever cliché you'd care to use to describe fanaticism) himself. As a result, he knows that adoring something so intangible — not to mention the very nature of fandom — can be both a blessing and a curse. Isn't that what Being There — Wilco's brilliant second album — was basically all about?
Wilco fans seem to be divided into factions, based almost entirely around album preferences. For me, it's the holy triumvirate of Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (the latter being their first, however, that the listener actually had to take time to digest ... which generally means there are no hooks; definitely not the case there). Other fans, though, might tell you Wilco's last album, Sky Blue Sky (which hit this listener as a snore), hit them at the right emotional moment in their lives. Or that A Ghost is Born, made when Tweedy was in the throes of painkiller addiction, wasn't simply too much noise and not a real drag if, say, one of the woofers in your car stereo was blown! Thump, thump, thump ...
So, for me, at least, Wilco (the album) plays like the best of all possible worlds. Some may view it as a step back, as though the previous three albums never happened (which is oversimplifying things, by the way). But it's surely a pop record — full of hooks and melodies (both unusual and not so unusual) and fairly quick accessibility, although a few listeners may hear some of those melodies as meandering at first. It's also an album in the classic sense of the word.
Tweedy has wanted to ape the band Television for so long now that his wife actually gave him guitar lessons from Richard Lloyd for one of his birthdays. So it's interesting that Wilco (the album) is the first Wilco release to use the great Los Angeles avant-garde jazz and rock guitarist (and now an official Wilco member) Nels Cline to such great effect. When the chugging riff that dominates the opening tune leads rapidly into some minor feedback, there might be a moment for concern; that this is perhaps going to be another Ghost being born. But throughout the disc, Cline's playing and tasteful uses of feedback — only "Bull Black Nova" allows him the opportunity to become a real guitar monster — are what help make the album as opposed to being the album.
It's generally not a good idea to dissect a Wilco album, song by song. Whether it's an album you revere or are baffled by, Tweedy's albums all work best as a piece — as a whole. This one's no different. The themes here seem to address the temporary nature of everything in life and the sadness that accompanies the passing of time — but let's just simply say that the musical influences here reflect everything from the aforementioned Television to Workingman's Dead-era Grateful Dead to very obvious and intentional Beatlesque pop. In fact, "You Never Know," one of the LP's finest moments, is so reminiscent of George Harrison at his best that when the slide guitar part of it was recently heard coming from a co-worker's cubicle, this reviewer thought it was "My Sweet Lord" at first. It's an homage, a tribute, and even a twist of irony in a song that addresses the changes but similarities between different generations (not to mention referencing a song that Harrison allegedly — and still arguably — cribbed from another tune himself).
It's especially terrific that music, which seemingly rises from such depressive places ("Do you dabble in depression?" Tweedy asks on the opening track) can still sound so bright, so inspiring and frequently so beautiful. Wilco loves you, baby.
Wilco plays Tuesday, July 21, at Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.