Quick Review (LP): Sky Blue Sky by Wilco

Wilco
Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch; 2007

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "You Are My Face", "Impossible Germany", "Side With The Seeds", "Please Be Patient With Me", "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)", "What Light"

Please be patient with this album.

TRACK NOTES

“Either Way”

  • Pretty. Love the strings.
  • "Maybe the sun will shine today…"
  • This one is more delicate than Wilco has perhaps ever been.

"You Are My Face"

  • Nice vocal harmonies.
  • Again, this one is delicate. A real change of pace going on.
  • The lyrics here are really interesting. Sonically, they are very musical in and of themselves. Some real verbal substance there as well though.

"Impossible Germany"

  • Amazing.
  • Television does soft rock. The tri-guitar interplay is fantastic.
  • This is what craftsmanship sounds like.
  • And what is the emotion here? Complicated.
  • Here’s my write-up of the track.

"Sky Blue Sky"

  • Tweedy sounds completely in tune with himself, comfortable in his own skin, maybe for the first time.
  • Hushed performance here. Reminds me a lot of the excellent "More Like The Moon" track.
  • "With a sky blue sky/This rotten time/Wouldn’t seem so bad to me now/Oh if I didn’t die/I should be satisfied I survived/It’s good enough for now."

"Side With The Seeds"

  • I wasn’t so sure about this one at first, but it has really grown on me.
  • This may be the liveliest track on the record.
  • Great guitar work from Nels Cline at the end.

"Shake It Off"

  • This one is a bit awkward, but I think it is meant to be.
  • What I mean is, the rhythm is a little stilted, the guitars sound a little off and un-melodic.
  • But I think it’s Tweedy’s communication of a sort of cloudy emotional state.

"Please Be Patient With Me"

  • Gorgeous tune.
  • Not a drum to be found.
  • This one reminds me of The Beatles’ quieter stuff. "I’m Only Sleeping", "Yesterday", etc.

"Hate It Here"

  • This one kind of reminds me of Big Star.
  • I’ve heard this one is supposed to be from his wife’s point of view.
  • I can see how this one would drive people crazy, especially with the direct lyrical approach.
  • That being said, I think there’s more going on here than at first glance.

"Leave Me (Like You Found Me)"

  • What does that piano line remind me of?
  • This one is another gorgeous soft rocker.
  • Nice bass work by Stirratt.

"Walken"

  • Strange spelling – is this song about Christopher Walken? It is sort of dancey.
  • "The more I think about it/The more I know it’s true!"
  • Sort of a goofy tune, but pretty catchy too.
  • They definitely sound like they are having a lot of fun.

"What Light"

  • Nice singalong-er. Almost a sweet drinking song quality to this one.
  • Overall, very simple, but also very appealling. Not a great Wilco track, but a good one.

"On and On and On"

  • This one seems to be a forgotten cut, but it’s really good.
  • Again, mellow, but packs a hefty emotional punch.
  • Nice way to end an album that has been a mix of light and dark.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Great cover image.
  • This album does very little to wow you. In my book, it’s all about the songwriting, the craftsmanship, the sort of patient consideration that requires a bit of thought about which note goes here, which lyric goes there, which instrument gets the emphasis on this or that passage, and how each track precisely fits together.
  • At the same time, there is an intuitive feeling to this album. It’s a bit paradoxical, but I get the sense that Tweedy loved this incarnation of the band and wanted to simply capture what they sounded like at that point in time.
  • One thing I love: there is this incredible 70’s classic rock vibe to the album. It’s really in Tweedy’s songwriting DNA. You can hear it in pretty much everything he does if you listen close enough.
  • All in all, after a 3 album experimental run, this is Wilco settling back into songwriting for songwriting’s sake. The results are frequently breathtaking.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Tracks of the Decade: “Impossible Germany” by Wilco

20080227-wilco-1“Impossible Germany”
by Wilco
from SKY BLUE SKY (2007)

Wilco’s sixth album, SKY BLUE SKY, was a huge turning point for the band, an album that to this day either inspires principled adoration or decisive disgust. “Impossible Germany” was the greatest track off that album, and say what you will about the album as a whole, their IS almost universal consensus that the track is one of Wilco’s greatest. I can’t imagine them ever playing live again without running through “Germany.” It’s the sort of slowly building epic that is bound to induce chills no matter how many times you hear it. The good news is that this stunning ensemble performance is captured to perfection “live in studio” on SKY BLUE SKY. The song’s plaintive country-jazz groove seamlessly segues into a Television-esque guitar freak-out, with the noodly guitars of Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone arguing themselves into harmony while Nels Cline brilliantly executes his patented Nels Cline guitar solo. At root, it’s one of Tweedy’s prettiest latter-day melodies, a low-key but frustrated meditation on communication breakdown. In the spirit of the track itself, I won’t put across strident arguments for its status as one of the decade’s greatest. “Impossible Germany” qualifies for its sonic excellence alone. It’s an audiophile’s fantasy worthy of repeated headphone indulgence, and it confirms that the future is wide open for one of the decade’s greatest bands.

Wilco: Wilco (the album) (2009)

wilco_album_390Wilco
Wilco (the album)
Nonesuch; 2009

My Rating: 7/10

It took me a while to get there, but I now consider Wilco’s previous record, SKY BLUE SKY, to rank in the top 3 Wilco albums. SBS initially came off as a bit lazy and disinterested, but after a while I came to see it as Tweedy’s own equivalent to Bob Dylan’s TIME OUT OF MIND, in that it was a clear break from the past in favor of a new and rejuvenating direction. SKY BLUE SKY really is a great record, the sound of a band taking a different approach in the studio and succeeding on all fronts.

That being said, I like WILCO THE ALBUM, especially as it continues in the understated vein of SKY BLUE SKY. Tweedy seems to have completely given up on trying to break our hearts, opting instead to simply sing from his own and let come what may. Pretense seems to be completely gone from his music, and nowhere is that more evident than in the album’s incidental trappings. Bands concerned with continuing to feed some kind of cooler-than-thou image wouldn’t put a two-hump camel on their album cover and don some seriously hideous nudie suits for the album photo shoots. And basketball orange just isn’t the color of pretense, it’s the color of cheese and fire and summertime. Did I mention that these guys named their SEVENTH full-length record after their band, and actually wrote a song about their band being your best friend? The only band that could make this kind of thing pretentious is Pavement, and Wilco ain’t Pavement.

The record opens with “Wilco (the song),” which rivals “Can’t Stand It” for the most upbeat opening track on a Wilco record. Nels Cline delivers a Pixies-esque guitar lead, lending a slight edge to the otherwise good-time groove of the record. The sweet-natured tribute to the fans sends a clear message: this is an album that really doesn’t have much of an agenda. Fair enough!

“Deeper Down” follows, one of a few fairly experimental tracks on the record, featuring a start-and-stop progression. The lyrics appear to be a meditation on mystery, focused on the unsearchable and unattainable both within and without. The lyric progresses happily from “the insult of a kiss” to the “comfort of a kiss,” a signal to some renewed optimism on Tweedy’s part. One can’t help but wonder if this song reflects Tweedy’s own journey as a songwriter. There are many indications that Tweedy, like other artists, has experienced difficulty with the creative process in the past, but his later work, especially the last two albums, suggest that he has reached a certain comfort with his music-making. This appears to be the center that holds “Deeper Down” together. In fact, the start-and-stop structure of the song reflects the old SELAH literary device used in the Psalms, which most scriptural scholars would say probably means “pause and meditate on these words.”

“One Wing” – as in “One wing will never fly” – starts to introduce some sadness to the music, reflecting the dejection of one party after the end of a relationship. Tweedy’s metaphors here are spot on – “We belonged to a bird who cast his shadow on the world” – and while the song does veer off into a bit too much of a groove towards the end, the overall mood provides needed balance to an album that has, thus far, seemed lighter than air.

“Bull Black Nova” comes off like a hybrid of A GHOST IS BORN’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and SKY BLUE SKY’s “Impossible Germany.” The lyric and music complement each other perfectly, reaching a paranoid climax along the theme of an apparently accidental killing. While the death is easy to discern through the numerous references to blood, it’s the sense of being watched that slips just under the radar. A Nova itself is a stellar object, and suns and stars populate the lyrics, as if they were the eyes of God Himself. “Nova” is a definite highlight of the record, one that I expect will feature prominently in the band’s sets for years to come.

Featuring an enjoyable duet with a tragically under-used Leslie Feist, “You and I” lightens the mid-album mood, being the breeziest pop song Tweedy has ever written. In contrast with “One Wing”, track 5 is an optimistic testimony to the mystery of relationship. It vaguely recalls “I’d Rather Dance With You” from fellow Feist-collaborators Kings of Convenience, as the couple agree that “I don’t need to know everything about you.” It’s a winner, but as previously mentioned, with a talent like Feist on board, it’s a shame this one doesn’t reach greater heights.

“You Never Know” continues the shift toward the sunny side of life, infecting your subconscious like something you might have roller-skated to back in grade school. It’s got Big Star, George Harrison, and midwest-bred written all over it, and might be the rootsiest thing Tweedy has written since BEING THERE. Could the positioning in the center of the album suggest a certain centrality to its message?

“Country Disappeared” pulls the plug on the mid-album breeze, drawing big correlations between wars in the third-world and the overwhelming presence of the media in our own. Ultimately a patriotic song (“I won’t take no/I won’t let you go”), it does seem a bit untimely given the election of a presidential candidate for whom Tweedy actively campaigned. Still, it is multi-layered, no mere protest song, and features one of Tweedy’s most soulful vocal performances.

“Solitaire” might be otherwise titled “Song for a Repentant Loner.” Reflecting the message of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” without any of that track’s distracting moralisms, it’s really a nice, simple song featuring understated but fitting instrumentation and excellent dual-tracked vocals. Again, it fits well with the overall theme of the album, and after a few listens, proves itself one of Tweedy’s best compositions, something that might have found its home on SKY BLUE SKY as well.

“I’ll Fight” is the album’s most urgent song, reflecting a deep spiritual dilemma in Tweedy. Whereas only a few albums ago he lackadaisically sang about a “War on War,” “I’ll Fight” is full of vigor and conviction. Strong religious imagery is employed, the narrating voice identifying in several ways with the suffering of Christ. It comes off something like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and is truly a step-forward for Tweedy, exploring the beauty of a life laid down for another versus the emptiness of a life lived without purpose.

“Sonny Feeling” recalls some of BEING THERE’s finer moments; BIG STAR is stamped all over this thing. It’s a life-flashing-before-your-eyes song, with Sonny having to choose between leaving home and seeing the world or staying in her hometown amongst all the “cruel kids.” Coming on the heels of “I’ll Fight’s” study in contrasts, it illuminates something still slightly out of reach with Tweedy, a certain nameless discomfort that keeps popping its head up like a whack-a-mole.

“Everlasting Everything,” a pretty minor-key piano ballad closes out the record in grand fashion, with Tweedy lamenting that “Nothing could mean anything at all.” It’s an exceedingly sad song, where everything that was good and bad is “Gone like a circus, gone like a troubadour.” In the end, Tweedy’s only consolation is to “be glad Everlasting love is all you had.” It’s a fitting close to a record that finds itself stuck somewhere in the middle between a hunger for deep knowledge and the need to take life as it comes. Like “One Wing,” my only contention with the track is that the band doesn’t do more with it.

Overall, this record feels like a summary statement of the band’s first twelve years. I’d call it a mature “AM.” There’s plenty of good material here, in fact it’s pretty consistently good throughout. Tweedy’s lyrics are quite multi-dimensional and genuinely shine within the simple (for Wilco!) production. However, there’s nothing off-the-wall great here, no “Impossible Germany” or “Shot in the Arm” or “Misunderstood” or “Poor Places.” While they’ve thankfully avoided repeating an avant-garde disaster like “Less Than You Think” for two albums now, they could stand to linger a little bit more here and there. It just seems a bit hurried, that’s all.

So with this, a mature AM, here’s to the band delivering a mature BEING THERE next time around.

TRACKS:
1. Wilco (the song) (4.5/5)
2. Deeper Down (3.5/5)
3. One Wing (3/5)
4. Bull Black Nova (4.5/5)
5. You and I (4/5)
6. You Never Know (4.5/5)
7. Country Disappeared (4/5)
8. Solitaire (4.5/5)
9. I’ll Fight (3.5/5)
10. Sonny Feeling (3/5)
11. Everlasting Everything (4/5)