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Monday, September 19, 2011

Wilco: The Whole Love (Release Date: 9-27-2011)

        Over the 18-year duration of their musical career, Wilco has, to my mind, seen Three distinct incarnations. Wilco 1.0 starts at the band's genesis, and lasts up until the start of the late 90's. They played fun little folk/pop/rock songs that with lyrics like, "When we're walking/The sun will shine/On that hill/Where we used to climb/I'll look in your eyes/And you'll be mine." They occasionally hinted at something bigger, but mostly, they were just for kicks. Wilco 2.0 seemingly came out of nowhere, but thank god for them. From 1999-2004, the band delivered Three masterclass LPs (Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A Ghost is Born), exemplified by a hugely expanded sonic world, and some mind-numbingly terrific song writing by frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their tunes were both expansive and subtle, inviting but often mysterious, with lyrics like, "All I could be/Is a busy sea/Of spinning wheels/And hands that feel/For stones to throw/And feet that run/But come back home." Presently, the world lays claim to Wilco 3.0.

        Wilco 3.0 isn't a bad band, per say. Neither Sky Blue Sky nor Wilco (The Album) were bad albums either, and had they been made by someone else, I honestly have no idea what my opinion of them would be. Coming from Wilco, a band who has seen such elating and delirious heights, they seemed a little... dad-rocky. Granted, the band is getting a bit older (Tweedy turned 44 in August), and it's awfully unrealistic to expect a hot streak like their's to keep going. How many amazing songs can One band really write, anyways?

        As if directly answering the questions of such naysayers like myself, Wilco's newest, The Whole Love, opens with Art of Almost, a song that uproots just about every single notion of what Wilco 3.0 can do. The number unfolds with sparse loops of drums and piano, Tweedy's voice joining the echoing soundscape soon after. The tune grooves along like this, adding and subtracting every sound from accompanying piano to an audio-clip that sounds stolen straight out of Panda Bear's Tomboy (in a good way). After strings and bass lines swell to the point of bursting, just about every sound clears out for guitarist Nels Cline, who solos like a man possessed from there on out. Clocking in at over Seven minutes, Art of Almost could readily be accused of over-indulgence, but I find it's go-for-broke approach inspiring and, well, pretty damn amazing. I haven't been as blown away by a tune of their's since Ghost came out Seven years ago.

        First single I Might doesn't aim to set the world on fire the way that Art of Almost does, but it doesn't need to. Its humming acoustic guitar and hyper-catchy organ part more than do the trick, the tune's bouncy ambience perfectly off-set by Tweedy's repeated declaration, "It's alright/You won't set the kids on fire/Oh, but I might." Two tracks into The Whole Love, I pretty much couldn't believe my ears. On track Three, Sunloathe, I suddenly could. Yet again, not a bad song, calling to mind some of the Beatles' chamber-poppier moments, but it doesn't excite or dazzle the way that the first Two tracks do. As it turns out, neither of these forms is emblematic of the rest of the disc. The fluctuation between the Two is.

        While Art of Almost strikes me as the undeniable champion of the disc, there are a variety of others songs here that impress far beyond what a cynical jerk like me had come to expect from the band. Dawned on Me is a genuine foot-stomper, fleshed out with instruments and harmonies aplenty that take it to extremes both sunny and grand. Born Alone, despite its depressing name and lyrics, is another warm ditty, One that takes plenty of time to rock out with Cline's stellar axe-work. Slower tracks, like Open Mind and Capital City fare less well, the group's folksy drawl simply less compelling than their excitable, more heavily-orchestrated numbers. The true exception to this rule only arrives at the end, as 12-minute closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend) rumbles along contentedly, soothing and gorgeous in its sway. Despite some flashes of real brilliance, The Whole Love suffers from too many dry-spells to be confused with hay-day Wilco, but there's little doubt in my mind that this is their most satisfying release since Ghost. Call it Wilco 2.5, or maybe just listen.

Grade: B

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