Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)


JUNE 2009 IS WILCO MONTH AT SWEET GEORGIA BREEZES. WE’LL BE COVERING THE BAND’S RECORDED OUTPUT AND HITTING ON SOME OTHER THINGS ABOUTTHIS GREAT AMERICAN BAND.

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Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2001; Nonesuch Records

My Rating: 10/10

If SUMMERTEETH is Wilco’s OK COMPUTER, then YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT is Wilco’s KID A. On SUMMERTEETH, WILCO proved themselves to be capable of pushing the envelope in just about any direction, but it seems that wasn’t enough for Tweedy. Whereas the band built symphonies out of songs on SUMMERTEETH, on YHF they take the tracks, demolish them, pick up the pieces, and glue them back together into staggering postmodern masterpieces. The album opens with “I am trying to break your heart”, a left-field folk song that seems to meander drunkenly down a city street. It’s as clear a signal as the band can send that you are in for something completely different on this record, and yet the song somehow manages to grab you and pull you into Wilco’s brave new world.

“Kamera” backs it up with a catchy, even-keeled, mid-tempo groover recalling jazz-rockers Steely Dan, only to descend into the most experimental piece on the record, “Radio Cure.” While it’s my opinion that “Radio Cure” is only essential in the way “Fitter Happier” is essential to Radiohead’s OK COMUTER, it could be argued that this is the record’s defining moment. When Tweedy howls, “Distance has no way of making love understandable”, he sucks you right into the album’s narrative, a meditation on communication and the distance between you and me.

“War on War” gets things moving again, and “Jesus etc.” delivers the knock-out blow. Though written before September 11th, 2001, the song’s lyrical imagery of “tall-buildings shaking” and “voices singing sad sad songs” seems to neatly summarize the myriad national sentiments in the days following the attacks. Call it a historical accident, but Tweedy’s words, coupled with the album’s dual-structural cover art, lends the record a prophetic tone, especially when “Jesus” is followed by “Ashes of American Flags.” “Ashes” is apparently the third in a four part cycle of deconstructed folk songs, seemingly pushing ahead without a tempo, random instruments firing from every corner. “Heavy Metal Drummer” lightens things up a bit, recalling the midwestern nostalgia of BEING THERE, and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” even brings a little brass back into the mix.

“Pot Kettle Black”, though great, comes off with the least impact, while “Poor Places” is the last (and best) in the previously mentioned song cycle. As “Poor Places” drifts into ambient HAM radio transmissions, you start to see that this record is all about communication, about reaching out for something to hold onto in the darkness. The album ends with “Reservations”, a track that sharply contrasts the deadpan album opener with Tweedy’s complete emotional buy-in. Tweedy sings “I’ve got reservations about so many things but not about you” with such direct abandon that it seems as if the whole thing has been a complete transformation.

YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT is Wilco’s avant-garde masterpiece, and rightfully deserves a place in the collection of any fan of good music. While not everyone will find everything here appealing, it nevertheless is one of the first great records of the 21st century.

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