Wilco embrace country music in a glorious, gorgeous return to the very peak of both Tweedy’s songwriting and his band’s powers.
For the first time since 2007s ‘Sky Blue Sky‘ Wilco have made an album as a band playing together, shaping the songs collaboratively as post-Covid they rediscovered the joy of being in a room in a band with instruments and time and, indeed, writing together. It is also the first time that Jeff Tweedy has positively aligned himself with a genre for which he was certainly acknowledged for, if not confined to, in his days with Uncle Tupelo and the early iteration of Wilco – Country Music.
Tweedy himself states “With this album though, I’ll tell you what, Wilco is digging in and calling it Country. Our Country. Cruel Country. Country music that sounds like us to our ears. In the past, it was always valuable and liberating for us to steer clear of the “Country” moniker. It helped us grow and keep our minds open to inspiration from near and far. But now, having been around the block a few times, we’re finding it exhilarating to free ourselves within the form, and embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making Country.”
Well YEEEEEHAAA. Saddle up my Palamino and let’s ride! But hold your horses… is it any good? The answer to that happily is that it’s a cracker, possibly their strongest collection of songs since ‘The Whole Love’ but it’s not country in a traditional sense. It’s Wilco country and all the better for it.
The opener ‘I Am My Mother‘ sets the scene with its breezy tone, strummed guitar, high lonesome lead, stentorian waltz time piano, harmonies and Tweedy’s keening vocal, and once the door to the saloon has been kicked open the tunes spill out and keep spilling for a long time, 21 tracks in all. ‘Cruel Country‘ has steel guitar and clip clopping percussion whilst Tweedy laments the state of the nation. This sure is country but as previously mentioned it is Wilco country. Each song is dappled with the trademark signature of the Wilco sound. An aspect to the songwriting that is both intangible and instantly recognisable but difficult to pin down. For example in the aforementioned ‘Cruel Country‘ it is the ghostly synth that fades in and out, on ‘Ambulance‘, ostensibly a fireside song, there is the burnish of Tweedy’s laconic delivery, ‘The Empty Condor’ with its pulsing piano motif and dappled guitar shades of shronk twisting in the background over the melody. ‘Bird Without A Tail Base of my Skull’ has harmonies and an urgency that builds as the band members fill the sound with their subtle contributions developing into an almost proggy, jazz country sound – can there be such a thing? Too right, it’s here. It sounds as if it’s ripe for a live wig out on the outro which spirals away and away on twin guitars before returning to the chorus.
Jeff Tweedy states that this is an American album built upon reflections as to the state of the nation and playing in an almost chronological order from songs about his mother to a sense of loss concerning the way dreams of going anywhere have been crushed in the modern USA. As a document the listener is taken on this journey in a myriad of melodies and just the most beautiful instrumentation. There are fleeting echoes of past glories – ‘Many Worlds’ could be ‘Reservations‘ with the crackly synth and vocal delivery repealing feelings nurtured by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s sublime power, while ‘Hearts Hard To Find’ is a classic Tweedy pop song with the gorgeous, sunny vibes reminiscent of ‘You and I‘ from ‘Wilco The Album’ complete with Beach Boys harmonies and sugar sweet lead guitar. ‘Story To Tell‘ could have been written at the same time as Mermaid Avenue’s ‘At My Window Sad And Lonely’ or perhaps references ‘Comment’ the closer from ‘Kicking Television’ in its shape and rhythm. Final track ‘The Plains‘ is a microcosm of the album, swirling electronica bedding a melancholy vocal, a gorgeous plucked Spanish guitar and a fade that takes your emotions and quietly bruises them.
Jeff Tweedy has seemingly returned to the touchstone of writing with Wilco as a band and in doing so has reaffirmed his status as one of the most important artists of the last 50 years. This album is a glorious, gorgeous return to the very peak of both his songwriting and also his band’s powers. It’s all here, everything a long term fan could want, a new listener could want, a dilletante or a fanatic. None will be disappointed. Dive in drink your fill, ‘Cruel Country’ it maybe but there are untold riches in its hills and valleys.