Thursday, May 17, 2007

Maybe You Still Love Me, Maybe You Don't

If it isn't clear enough already that Sky Blue Sky is the most polarizing record of Wilco's career, this cinches it for me -- welcome to our first-ever joint post. More than any other band, Wilco brought us together as friends and cemented our music-geek bond. We've seen the band together numerous times over the last few years, in Atlanta and on roads trips across the South, and it's fair to say that we're both tithing members of the Church of Tweedy. But we've had very different reactions to Sky Blue Sky (as have a lot of folks -- witness Pitchfork vs. PopMatters). So welcome to our own little version of Point/Counterpoint:

Frank's Take:

Unlike the three records that preceded it, Sky Blue Sky is not a grand artistic statement. It has no art-rock pretense or 60s pop pastiche, no bursts of feedback or radio interference, no ominous foreshadowing of disastrous events, no "American aquarium drinkers" who "assassin down the avenue." In a recent Billboard interview, Jeff Tweedy said that when the band set out to record its latest batch of songs, he asked himself, what record do I want to hear right now? And the answer was, "I want to hear somebody just sing me some songs."

That's precisely what Tweedy and Co. do on Sky Blue Sky. And as much as this delights the legions of fans who have aways preferred the early "alt country" Wilco of A.M. and Being There, it frustrates the hell out of newer fans who expect every Wilco record to top the last in sonic "experimentation." As Tweedy said in another recent interview, when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, everyone asked him, "Where's the pedal steel?" Now the pedal steel is back, and everyone's asking, "Where's the noise?"

Well there's plenty of gorgeous noise on Sky Blue Sky. No, it's not their most complex or adventurous work -- and okay, it might even have one bum track -- but with that single (and arguable) exception, the record is never less than hugely enjoyable, and when it's good, it's as fine as just about anything this exceptional band -- and this one-in-a-million songwriter -- have ever produced.

The record is bookended, both musically and thematically, by two lovely Tweedy ballads, "Either Way" (which we previewed back in April) and "On & On & On." The former floats in on Tweedy's fingerpicked acoustic and a bed of shimmering Hammond organ, then peaks with swelling strings and a beautifully understated solo by new, virtuoso lead guitarist Nels Cline. But on the second track, "You Are My Face" (currently my favorite on the record), it's Tweedy who supplies the guitar pyrotechnics with a gutting, Neil Young-inspired solo that transforms this gentle folk song, with its airy, double-tracked vocal, into an adrenaline-fuelled plea. (It's at moments like this when I just can't comprehend the complaint that Sky Blue Sky "doesn't rock.") Elsewhere, "Impossible Germany," a live favorite since last summer, peaks with a three-guitar duel in which Tweedy and Cline are joined by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. And anyone waiting for Cline to step out and really show his stuff has to be wowed by the blistering solo he turns in on the soulful "Side With The Seeds." "Walken" is not the most profound piece of music Jeff Tweedy has ever created, but the charms of its Southern fried, Little Feat vibe are awfully tough to resist. And the delicate "Please Be Patient With Me" is both unspeakably pretty and the most intensely personal tune Tweedy has ever released -- almost like eavesdropping on one of the conversations he and his wife must have had during his struggle with addiction a few years ago.

In short, and despite the fact that it's a relatively subdued ride from start to finish, I really love this record, and think it has given us at least eight new songs that deserve their place in the Wilco canon. (Of course, the very fact that I speak in terms of a "canon" when I talk about Jeff Tweedy and Wilco reveals my admitted bias.)

At the same time, the latest Wilco record is precisely that -- just the latest record by Wilco, until they make another one. Jeff Tweedy is not even 40 years old. Like Dylan or Neil Young, he's a career artist, and a love of his music is a relationship for life. (Maybe Sky Blue Sky is his Nashville Skyline, or his Harvest.) And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he's given me more music to enjoy, and to be thrilled and fascinated and moved by, than any other artist over the past decade. So, as another blogger so aptly put it earlier this week, if he wants to kick back and be mellow right now, I'll happily kick back with him.

Rich's Take:

"Be careful what you wish for," should probably be the theme of my post. Don't get me wrong. Of course I loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot every single bit as much as any other self-respecting Wilco disciple, but by the time A Ghost Is Born revealed how the band had -- "ruined" is too strong a word -- changed "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" from the alt-country version they'd been playing live into a celebration of Krautrock, and inexplicably added about 12 minutes of machine hum to the end of "Less Than You Think," I was calling for Wilco to end the weird-for-weird's-sake and just play the damn songs. The beautiful, supremely melodic songs of one this generation's most gifted songwriters.

I have to admit that Sky Blue Sky has me apologetically asking if I could change my order. Now, Wilco has never really been overwhelmingly challenging, but there has long been something of an edge present in the band's music, an uneasy undercurrent that manifested itself in limited Sonic Youth outbursts of noise and disjointed, impressionistic lyrics that are often deeply evocative for reasons superficially unexplainable. Most reviewers will probably highlight that Sky Blue Sky represents a kind of maturity in the evolution of Wilco, but it's a maturity that comes at the expense of that "edge."

This is a most curious development. When Wilco signed the great avant garde guitarist Nels Cline to the lineup, I was excited about the sonic possibilities that this presented. And having seen him shred on Wilco standards several times in the last few years (and hearing him on the live album Kicking Television), I felt the Nels Cline version of the band portended a new dimension of artistic creativity. But Nels' guitar work on this record is, for the most part, decidedly subtle and disappointingly understated. It would say that it's the equivalent of signing A-Rod to play third base, only that metaphor doesn't hold up because A-Rod still gets to hit every once in a while, and these particular songs don't offer much for Mr. Cline to swing at.

I certainly don't mean to pan the record. Some of the songs on Sky Blue Sky are probably as good as anything Wilco has ever done. "Impossible Germany" would've been at home on either of the last couple of records, and "What Light," a new classic in the Wilco songbook, is probably that song that I intended to order up in my prior exhortation. It's still a Wilco record, which makes it way better than the vast majority of anything else that's out there.

Nevertheless, this record probably also has some of Wilco's least effective material. "Shake It Off," a herky-jerky jam that never really goes anywhere but does go on for far longer than is necessary, is probably my least favorite song that the band has ever recorded. A close second is Tweedy's hymn to sad domesticity, "Hate It Here," which dresses up in ill-fitting 70s soul that sounds either like something off of an unheard comeback attempt by Peter Frampton or an early Don Henley B-side. For the first time in my life, I'm routinely skipping over Wilco songs.

That 70s soul/soft-rock thing permeates the record. Songs like "Leave Me Like You Found Me" and "Walken" aren't bad, they're just not particularly interesting. And unlike previous Wilco records -- which routinely had me studying the lyrics, trying to decipher what Jeff was getting at, or simply admiring their inherent poetry -- here, the straightforward, earnest lyrics on Sky Blue Sky have me drifting off, thinking about that project at work or whether I'll have time to get my oil changed this weekend. I begin to recall that scene in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart when Jay Bennett sort of condescendingly explains that he needs to junk up Tweedy's songs with a bunch of noise and found sounds in order to keep them from sounding "like little folk songs," or words to that effect. I still don't believe that's entirely true, but a few of these may have benefited from some measure of sonic tinkering.

But then again, what do I know? Jeff Tweedy has made a career of giving his fans musical food that their palates aren't ready for, so it may just be that this record needs further digestion so that it continues to grow and insert itself in ways that aren't yet understood. If so, I'll be the first to circle back and admit that I was short-sighted. But at this point, and at the risk of damning it with faint praise, Sky Blue Sky can be summed up by referencing a line in the title track: "its good enough for now." It may not be my favorite Wilco outing so far, but it's still Wilco, and that's good enough for me.

MP3: Wilco - "You Are My Face" from Sky Blue Sky