From the opening delicate notes of ‘Either Way‘ to the closing chords of ‘On and On and On’, “Sky Blue Sky” signalled Wilco’s intent to develop into an even more interesting and arresting band than the alt country shape shifters that had embraced the avant-garde via indie pop and won Grammys in the process. Now they were perfecting the art of writing the perfect songs. And, don’t you know, they damn well did it.
This was a band that already had huge musical talent and was then further enhanced with the addition of guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline and multi instrumentalist Pat Sansone. Jeff Tweedy seemingly, finally, had his perfect band and in Cline his perfect foil. The album unrolls at a deceptively pedestrian pace, enveloping rather than assaulting the listener. Tweedy’s songs have a flavour of the Beatles in their melodies and gorgeousness; he claimed that he had been listening to The Band and Fairport Convention and also, tellingly, many of the songs were collaborative rather than his solo compositions. The dissonance and experimentation had receded in the rear view mirror and classic songwriting was on the agenda and boy does it deliver. The twin guitars at the end of ‘Impossible Germany’ remind of Thin Lizzy, bizarrely, and have become a powerful statement in live shows from which Nels Cline emerges after demonstrating his prowess with a guitar break beginning as a sweet sounding solo and descending into avant grade madness before returning to melody. Each time this reviewer has seen them perform this track the denouement has been different yet still sublime. The mournful melancholy of ‘On and On and On‘ as Tweedy writes of the need to carry on, even in the face of tragedy. In this case the death of his mother with Tweedy ostensibly writing the song for his father. The aching loneliness of ‘Hate it Here’ with its laconic, mordant refrain and wonderful Rhodes keyboard heart. The tale of a man busying himself after being left alone and coming to terms with his loneliness. The sparkle sharp guitar punctuating the narrative with crystals of melody, sharp and acetic and then the horns blow in to turn it into twisted soul song.
One of the key elements of the album is the clarity of the writing – simple song structures adorned with gorgeous production that seems to favour the playful guitar or keyboard flourish over the shronk of previous outings. This gives everything a freshness that hasn’t dulled through familiarity. Tweedy and Cline trading delicate licks over a bed of consummate musicianship and invention. Tweedy’s vocals are also at full strength, neither the anguished screams of the past nor the whispered ruminations of latter day works. Each vocal fits the song like a glove, be it the delicacy of ‘Please Be Patient With Me‘ or the snarled drawl of ‘Walken’. The “Sky Blue Sky” style of writing has seemingly re emerged recently – the sense of band endeavour and the joy of songwriting is again being celebrated with the latest Wilco offering “Cruel Country“, ironically the press that originally hailed SBS as lightweight are piling in to suggest that “”Cruel Country” harks back to the classic “Sky Blue Sky“”. There is a lot of revisionism going on and well it might given the stature that this album now holds, often riding high in fan polls (but interestingly not in AUK’s Top Ten – surely some mistake!) It stands to reason, every track has a highlight, be it lyrical or musical, often both. Similarly, the strength and longevity of “Sky Blue Sky” is evidenced by the number of live favourites that remain firmly entrenched in the Wilco set and, indeed, in the audience requests received pre gig.
It is a classic Americana album and also an essential one.