One of the consistently rewarding things about Wilco has been the band’s willingness to be sonically inconsistent…to experiment, push boundaries and surprise the listener. That element of the band seemed to come to an end with the relatively sedate Sky Blue Sky (2007) and Wilco (The Album) (2009). Ringleader Jeff Tweedy seemed to concentrate on his lyrics and melodies and less on pushing the envelope.
Perhaps the band had settled in to a comfortable middle age. After all, after going through numerous personnel changes, the band line-up has remained stable since 2005. So, with no further changes on this, Wilco’s 8th studio album, have they decided to rest on their considerable laurels? No way.
Just as 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a major game-changer for the band, so is The Whole Love. This is a very different sounding Wilco to what we’ve heard before. As a long-time fan of the band, I am thrilled with what I’m hearing here. This is the sound of six incredible musicians at their creative peak, having one hell of a time.
The album is book-ended by two rather lengthy tracks. The Art Of Almost starts things off with crackly, electronic loops, bleeps and squeals and builds up with percussion, piano, synths and mellotron. It’s significant that Patrick Sansone is given a co-production credit with Jeff Tweedy and engineer Tom Schick. It sounds like Sansone’s sound-shaping mellotron, glockenspiel, keyboards, guitar and percussion is a major reason why this record sounds the way it does. Tweedy’s familiar voice is what holds everything together and assures us that, yes, this is Wilco. But by the end of this seven minute track you might think you have stumbled on to outtakes from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Ace guitarist Nels Cline makes his presence known near the end of the track with a stunning psychedelisized solo.
At the other end of the record, One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) begins with just Tweedy’s voice and acoustic guitar. The song’s lengthy narrative is based on a particularly poignant conversation Tweedy indeed had with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s partner. Tweedy’s lyrics are particularly moving and the music is subtle and gentle. At about the eight and a half minute mark, the vocals are finished and the band takes over for another three and a half minutes floating along with piano, guitar, percussion and Mikael Jorgensen’s ‘wavetable scrubbing”. Twelve minutes of pure bliss.
In-between these two epics, the band runs the musical gamut from feisty rockers (I Might, Born Alone), intimate ballads (Black Moon, Rising Red Lung), change the mood from playful (Standing O) to dark and introspective (Sun Loathe). No matter what the mood, the six musicians provide a constantly surprising and satisfying approach to present Tweedy’s songs. Guitar solos spring out of nowhere and demand your attention, keyboards bubble along and colour the songs in unexpected ways and Glenn Kotche’s percussion is as wildly inventive as ever. As usual the anchor to the sound is John Stirratt’s solid bass playing.
Anyone who thought Wilco had run out of new ideas will be forced to think again.
Click here to listen to Dawned On Me from The Whole Love: