Wilco “Cousin”

dBpm Records, 2023

Cover art Wilco Cousin

Wilco shed another skin on restrained, ruminative and sometimes moving thirteenth studio album.

Cover art Wilco CousinStarting with dissonance on track one, ‘Infinite Surprise’ signals another left turn from Wilco following their Cruel Country road trip. Hiring their first external producer since ‘Sky Blue Sky’, this feels like a return to some form of art-rock given the choice of Cate le Bon. The track unfolds delicately with Jeff Tweedy’s vocals sounding more delicate than ever over a soundtrack of gently fed back, distorted guitars and possibly even a brass band until the gorgeous, repeated title drifts into crackles of white noise. This has tremendous possibilities for live performance.

‘Ten Dead’ unfolds as a modern nursery rhyme over muted piano and minor chords with drum fills and swooping distant guitar as Nels Cline makes his extraordinary noises both harmonic and disarming. There is a sense of Loose Furs with Kotche changing the focus with each fill. And again, the track finishes without ceremony leaving the listener unsettled. ‘When the Levee is Fake’ is another gentle Tweedy narrative, as we have been used to over recent albums, upfront vocals over a shuffled beat and playful, restrained backing. The single ‘Evicted’ harks back to the Cruel Country vibe, another gentle shuffle with diamond bright choruses and shooting star guitar peals. Its insistent beat and final repeated phrases giving it weight. ‘Sunlight Ends’ is far more experimental, playing with rhythm, instrumentation and mood as is the following track ‘A Bowl and a Pudding’. A dreamy, ruminative piece with vocals looped and repeated; over an insistent, urgent backing that resolutely remains muted and subtle. There is a sense of musicians going for a mood rather than a tune in the swirling, tilting and ultimately fading soundscape of which the vocals are just a part rather than the focus.

The title track is another insistent earworm threaded through the eye of the needle of cross-rhythms and building layers of vocals before exploding into a trademark Wilco repeated line with a growing, growling instrumental climax. This will be a killer track live as the band will extend the final minutes towards an explosive finale (hopefully!). ‘Pittsburgh’ has a weight from the opening bars. A solemn, stately march that dips in intensity as the vocals come in, again Tweedy is in whisper/confessional mode. This feels like a funeral hymn until the gorgeous, delicate instrumental break; all sparkling lightness, flitting from speaker to speaker. This is prog by any other name until Tweedy wrestles the narrative back over a growing sense of consternation. And then it is gone… and we are back to the shuffle with ‘Soldier Child’ this time with piano accompaniment and a delightful acoustic guitar break. This sounds like the sun shining after the dark night of the previous tracks. The final song is ‘Meant to Be’ which is the lightest offering of all. A disco beat of potential optimism, upbeat and hoping. Simple melodies and grouped vocals.

This is a restrained, almost cold album. There is no screaming or wailing blasts of feedback. For this reviewer, it is the lack of unrestrained emotion or playing that makes this harder to connect with on a visceral level. Wilco bring a wild energy to live performances both in Jeff’s vocals and the group’s playing and dynamic. This is a different beast, almost an exercise in muted sobriety. There is a sense of musicians seeking sounds rather than musical dexterity or brilliance. Hushed and reverent in many ways but there is a power within the restraint. Repeated plays reveal nuances and moods that swirl around Jeff Tweedy’s careful often wracked vocals. There is celebration after the journey, but it feels hesitant, with an eye in the rear-view mirror. Wilco have made another compelling album, not as immediately accessible as Cruel Country or indeed Sky Blue Sky, but it is one that rewards repeated listening flowering into something both moving and essential. These tracks will osmose into the consciousness over time with some of them potentially becoming favourites within a very strong canon. But some raw emotion would have stirred some spice into the already flavoursome pot.

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About Keith Hargreaves 394 Articles
Riding the one eyed horse into dead town the scales fell from his eyes. Music was the only true god at once profane and divine The dust blew through his mind as he considered the offering... And then he scored it out of ten and waited for the world to wake up
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