Wilco, The Whole Love
When a band releases a self-titled album that is not their debut, I can usually smell a disaster from a mile away. It’s like the band wants to fake a reset of sorts for commercial or artistic reasons, or they simply weren’t creative enough to come up with a real album title. Anytime that is taken one step further and you are writing a song that is self-titled on an album that is self-titled, you are probably getting a little too cute for your own good.
Unfortunately, that’s what Wilco did in 2009, 14 years after their alt-country debut, A.M., releasing Wilco, the sound of a bunch of former rock stars married with kids of their own, fairly domesticated and musically relaxed. Two years removed from their weakest album to date, following another change in record labels (a band with a well-recorded history of record label issues) and the drug overdose and death of former band mate Jay Bennett, the seasoned Chicago rockers release The Whole Love. This latest album would have been better qualified to be the self-titled Wilco album, as the 12 songs represent all of Wilco’s musical phases in a glorious light.
In a long list of Wilco’s classic album openers, the glitchy, experimental “Art of Almost” fits quite well in the pantheon. The song is long, dramatic, disjointed and dismantles itself much like the pop deconstruction they did during their experimental musical teen years on A Ghost Is Born and their masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “I Might” follows and immediately brings to mind the sunny power-pop on Summer Teeth, with a deeply distorted bass, dainty xylophone and psychedelic organ like Elvis Costello’s best years. “Open Mind” is the sort of swaying country tune that would have been fit on their no-frills alt-country debut A.M., and “Black Moon” is the best ba
llad they have delivered since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which had a multitude of affecting ballads. “Standing Ovation” is a thrilling rock roller coaster. With its circling hooks, persistent drumming and amusement park organ, the song is a surefire crowd pleaser for their already rousing live shows.
The psychedelic vocals and rising guitar on “Sunloathe” brings to mind the ode-to-'70s rock sound of Sky Blue Sky, but even more so Abbey Road-era Beatles. Much like the Beatles (a comparison I hate making with any band, but I continue), Wilco, at its core, is a conventional rock 'n’ roll band with an incredible aptitude for great pop songwriting—but they go off on all sorts of genre exercises and detours of music they love (like George Harrison would do with Indian music, Paul McCartney with musicals). Wilco has covered everything from avante-garde music on “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to space rock on “Art of Almost” on this album. Wilco, like the Beatles, can also do this to a fault like on one of Whole Love’s only missteps, “Capitol City,” which has frontman Jeff Tweedy taking on a show-tune with its schmaltzy shuffle and '20s horns, sort of like how McCartney would go off on his show-tune detours on songs like “Your Mother Should Know” and “Honey Pie.”
Wilco has always been a band of considerable contrast, especially on songs like “Via Chicago” and “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart” where the band performs lovely folk songs while the song structure behind it manically collapses. On Whole Love, similar to the songs on Summer Teeth, Wilco delivers this contrast in giving garage rock a sugary pop feel, creating “bubblegum garage rock” in the form of the first three singles, “I Might”, “Dawned On Me” and “Born Alone.” “Dawned On Me” is a grungy rocker with a piercing static guitar solo from Nels Cline, but the song is contrasted with its saccharine falsetto chorus. “Mister Rogers” whistles, lighthearted percussion and enough “oohs” and “aahs” for a Supremes song. “Born Alone” has Tweedy sounding grounded and lonely while the guitars take off like a rocket ship.
Jeff Tweedy has never been afraid to tackle religious and spiritual issues, all the way back to his Uncle Tupelo days (his first band with Jay Farrar, who were, in many ways, the forefathers of alt-country) to the Woody Guthrie cover albums with British political folk activist Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 & 2. Tweedy continues to talk candidly on spiritual issues on the album closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a song based around a conversation he had at dinner once with (no surprise here) Jane Smiley’s boyfriend where the boyfriend talked about his condemning religious father and the strange relief he felt when his father passed. “It’s ‘your god’ I don’t believe in,” the son says to his father in the song, a 12-minute epic narrated gently above poignant piano and rustling percussion. As Tweedy explained to Chicago Magazine, the son felt relief about his father’s passing because, “Now he’s going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God,” a fascinating focus in the situation.
The title track comes right before the album closer, and the song is simply Wilco doing what they do best. On “Whole Love” Tweedy’s feathery vocals hover gracefully over the biting drums and hopping guitar, like a bird flying gracefully over its predators, as each verse brings its own new adventure with subtle touches only Wilco can bring.
Whole Love is elite musicians creating timeless rock music. An overflowing sea of music that begs you to be different, Wilco sees no need to play strange African instruments, have 20 band members, wear wild costumes or have any other gimmick; this is just six humbled musicians from the Midwest making rock music with substance and tact—something worth applauding.