THE new Wilco album crackles into life like a mess of electric jack leads being hastily untangled. Discordant strings drown out distorted drums. Have I selected the wrong record? This sounds nothing like Wilco.
Fans of the Chicago group could be forgiven for feeling a little confused. Eight studio albums, countless line-up changes, drug addiction, death, sell-out tours – it’s no wonder Jeff Tweedy and co still don’t seem to know exactly who they are.
Formed in 1994 from the ashes of Tweedy’s former band Uncle Tupelo, in their early days Wilco occupied the very middle of the “alternative country rock” road.
The turn of the century saw the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a major shift in the Wilco sound. Under the influence of Jim O’Rourke and Jay Bennett experimentation and breaking new musical ground became the name of the game.
A Ghost Is Born took this theory its extreme. Tweedy battled a crippling addiction to painkillers and the resulting music was heavy on distortion, noise and frustration.
With a further clear-out of personnel recent years have seen a return to a more mellow Wilco. Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) reminded us of Tweedy’s ability to knock out a simple tune that needs no more than just an acoustic guitar.
The death of Bennett in 2009 and the end of Wilco’s contract with the Nonesuch label the following year appeared to draw a line under a troubled period. So what to make of The Whole Love?
Opening track Art of Almost is just about as far as it is possible to get from anything they have ever done before. Infused with funky reggae, skittering beats and a sweeping, film score orchestra, it’s like contemporary Radiohead remixing the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s seven minutes long, it’s bloody brilliant and at the end of it you still have no idea what comes next.
On I Might and Dawned On Me Tweedy channels his inner Beatle, equipped with wurlitzers, mellotrons, whistles and the cheeky nasal drawl of Lennon at his best.
From there we seem to be in more familiar territory. Black Moon is a gorgeous old-fashioned love song, and Born Alone wouldn’t be out of place on drive time Radio 2.
The eccentric Capitol City promises much but ends up a poor relation of Sky Blue Sky’s Hate it Here before concluding abruptly and bizzarely with a peal of church bells.
The album ends on an upward curve, as if the band are just starting to get into their stride, and the title track is as bright and breezy as anything from their vast canon.
But it wouldn’t be Wilco if it was as simple as all that. Like previous records The Whole Love ends with a gorgeous, fragile country folk song – in this case One Sunday Morning – that descends into an extended 12-minute jam, a repetitive single note spliced over a layer of feedback.
Like Mark Linkous with Sparklehorse and Conor Oberst with Bright Eyes, Tweedy leads his loose collective from the front and continues to reinvent it. From country troubadours to angsty rockers, prog twiddlers to folk favourites, Wilco refuse to be tied down. They are a wonderful, defiant, enigmatic group of musicians who are producing the best work of their career.
Listen to a preview of I Might and buy the album here.