I Might Be Wrong: Wilco’s recent output is questionableBy Colin St. John | January 18th, 2012 | 2 comments
When I was in high school, my mother still had a dial-up Internet connection. The advent of Napster was a godsend for many, but for me it just meant all-night downloading sessions. One such overnight blitz was for Wilco’s “Summerteeth,” my introduction to the band. It was worth it. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” followed and meant more to me than almost any other album released last decade. The subsequent material has been hit or miss, to be sure. What ensues, here, is a G-Chat debate between myself and Reverb managing editor John Hendrickson, a massive Wilco enthusiast. He takes a more positive spin on the group’s past few years, while I see things a bit differently. Insert a “I’ve Got Reservations” and a Wilco is “trying to break my heart” joke here.
Colin: So what are your thoughts on the current incarnation?
John: Six is one too many, by most bands’ standards. But if you had to cut someone, who would it be? Pat Sansone is the greatest Scottie-Pippen-utility-man in the game. Or Nels? Give me a break.
Colin: I guess I would just have Jay Bennett brought back from the dead.
John: Bennett’s contributions to “Summerteeth” greatly outweigh anything he did on “YHF.” It was time for him to go.
Colin: I guess I’m not disputing that, but there doesn’t seem to be an edginess any longer. It’s almost as if somebody needs to be making Tweedy more uncomfortable.
John: Nels is now the source of edge for this band, along with Glenn Kotche. See the “15 step”-esque percussion on new album opener, “Art Of Almost.” Tweedy is just in a better place now: successful, non-addict, with willing and able bandmates.
Colin: Yeah, but that sort of makes it all a little boring; there’s a reason there will be so many Volvos with car seats in the backseat parked outside the Fillmore on Thursday. Success breeds complacency.
John: What would you rather have? A well-adjusted Tweedy making age-appropriate music, or a motorcycle-riding, ear-piercing d-bag trying to keep up with the kids 20 years his junior?
Colin: Fair point. I’m just struggling to figure out if what they did on “Summerteeth” and “YHF” was as inventive as I thought it was back then, or if I thought it was inventive because it was back then: i.e., when I was younger and less jaded. Is Wilco one of my favorite bands ever? Yes. But, is that because I didn’t know any better?
John: If Wilco were to emerge this year, no, they would probably not get noticed. The fact that they were one of maybe 15-20 of the original “indie-rock” bands to “make it” (in a sense) says something. Saturation breeds mediocrity. Would Girls or Real Estate have stuck out to anyone in 1995?
Colin: I’m not sure; “Vomit” is pretty great. But, I don’t think Real Estate would have; I don’t think they “stick out” now.
John: Of course not. For the vastness and expansiveness of indie-rock today, it lacks the “professionalism” factor that bands like Wilco exuded in the ’90s and early 2000s. They still have it, but now it’s “boring.”
Colin: Well, I think the issue — for me, at least — is that they’re boring in relativity to themselves, not to other bands. “The Whole Love” isn’t a bad album but it’s not doing any that they haven’t done before.
John: I agree.
Colin: It’s an odd thing, though, because they still kick ass live: When I saw them at Keyspan Park on Coney Island in 2009, it was a wonderful experience. They’re just as good as they were years ago.
John: But that’s just an issue any great artist faces. Can Neil Young’s “Le Noise” or “Prairie Wind” compare to “On The Beach”? This will be my sixth Wilco show in five years. Every time, it seems, they get a little better and more comfortable with each other. Nels picks his places, Tweedy’s voice is ever-stronger.
Colin: But do you admittedly get more stoked on older material or new stuff?
John: Live? Older, of course. But I can’t wait to hear both “I Might” and the aforementioned “Almost” on Thursday night.
Colin: Same. I guess I’m partially playing devil’s advocate but also wondering what happened, exactly. I like “A Ghost Is Born” but can’t totally get on board with anything since; each record has — as you referenced — a couple of super solid tracks but that’s it. Nothing is complete, anymore.
John: This record feels complete to me. Bookending it with long songs, weird structures in-between, the inevitable “waltz” track (“Capitol City”). “Cap City” is no “Hummingbird,” but, yeah, Tweedy is still cognizant that all of his albums are arguments. Maybe “Sky Blue Sky” and the last were just weaker arguments.
Colin: I guess. Bringing up what you said about Neil Young earlier, I still don’t see them as “old” and, therefore, hope for cutting edge stuff. I mean, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and the Flaming Lips have done decent jobs of keeping it weird.
John: Yes, as has Radiohead. Was Wilco ever really that weird to begin with, though?
Colin: That’s the inner debate I have going on. I think I thought they were when I got into them and so I’ve constructed some kind of fantasy: an unfair future for them.
John: I always thought of their songs as fundamental rock, pop or alt-country, with some experimentalism for good measure, but never “weird.”
Colin: There’s an absent darkness, though, that made them odder and, by extension, more interesting. There’s not an inkling of the dimness of, say, the refrain from “Shes a Jar” to be found these days. And I get it: They all have kids now and money and are off drugs, etc., etc., Amen. But, all of that stuff can really hurt your ability to be a rock and roll musician.
John: “She’s A Jar” is one of the best songs in a catalog of eight studio albums. At this point in my fandom, I don’t expect to be blown away by anything except the live show. Is that a crime?
Colin: No, but aside from “Side with Seeds,” “Sky Blue Sky” might be considered one. Don’t you, at least, wonder what the last 10 years would’ve been like with a person like Jay Bennett in Wilco?
John: No, though I wish Nels had joined the band sooner and with more robust personality out of the gate.
Colin: He’s great live but do you really think he’s adding a lot to these studio albums? “YHF” is one of the best albums of the 2000s. For better or for worse, the band raised recorded expectations for itself forever with that one.
John: I think he was holding back on “Sky Blue Sky” and “(The Album),” but showed some more creativity on this most recent record. Even if the songs, as a whole, weren’t all that memorable.
Colin: Maybe they should record another batch of Guthrie tunes next or make a completely country disc.
John: I’d like to see Tweedy record a proper solo album.
Colin: Yeah, totally, his solo shows are also still fantastic, Uncle Tupelo songs and all.
John: Riddle me this: Do you resent the band for not remaining edgy, or do you fear that if you still like a less-edgy band you, yourself, are entering a new phase of life?
Colin: Probably a little bit of both, but I’m also not ashamed to admit that I still go to Phish shows. But, perhaps, that’s me enjoying being a naysayer. I’m excited for the Wilco show and whether it’s like my Phish allegiance and is partially from some place of adolescent longing or attempted connection to my youth, I don’t care. Nels shreds.
John: What will be left when the indie bubble bursts? Probably bands like Wilco, Phish, Radiohead and others that are derided.
Colin: Who derides Radiohead? Who I say!?
John: Did you read the reviews of the last album? Was there even ONE positive review?
Colin: There might have not been any glowing ones at the time but then you wait a minute and whadduya know? It’s on more end of year lists than you would’ve thought.
John: Those are just bloggers hoping to get press ticket to the arena tour.
Colin: I can’t say I saw “The Whole Love on many lists; maybe on the dad rock bible, “Rolling Stone.”
John: Nothing gold can stay. “All that glitters is gold.” — Smashmouth