While we’re talking about the arbitrary, 5- or 10-year incremental celebrations of albums, let’s prepare for impending decade anniversary of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” That seminal effort dropped in April 2002; pick through reviews of the Chicago-based band’s last three albums – 2009’s “Wilco (The Album),” 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” and 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born” -- and see critics reaching and plucking out what they can of some semblance to “YHF.”
That’s in part because Wilco still subscribes to those same influences like Beatles, Big Star and the Byrds. But it’s still evident on new “The Whole Love” that the band no interest in making “YHF 2.” Why would they? Every album since then has had a different tone and, for the most part, different personnel. (I write this, too, as more site continue appraising Ryan Adams' new material to that of "Heartbreaker." There's yet another artist who cannot escape criticism waged for not sounding like his past.)
Here, on “The Whole Love,” is where advancement is heard most in the musicianship. The lineup -- frontman Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardists/multi-instrumentalists Mikael Jorgensen and Patrick Sansone and drummer Glenn Kotche -- is now consistent, and there’s an even delegation of roles. Cline is like the weirdo ringer, adding volume and dangerous textures to tracks like “Dawned on Me,” and Kotche being the micomanager, with little details in his rhythms on otherwise-sleepy “Capitol City” and subtlety to already-subtle “Rising Red Lung.” Stirratt makes himself known on the biggest rockers, like single “I Might” and “Standing O,” the latter of which breaks up the soft middle section of the album (but why do both feature the same organ part, borrowed from Elvis Costello's Attractions?).
Which brings me to one of my major qualms with “The Whole Love,” in its sequencing and propensity to tease.
The band’s out the gate with “Kid A”-like bleep-out “Art of Almost,” which almost sounds like nothing at all in the rest of the Wilco’s back catalog, let alone anything else on this album. “I Might” sits right where it should on the second slot, and is mellowed out by “Sunloathe.” But after highlight “Dawned on Me,” it’s an open sea of midtempo, with only “Standing O” to break it up.
Despite its indispensable guitar line, the title track has the listener waiting too long for the punchline, and serves as a good reminder why Tweedy should rarely wade into falsetto. The verse melody of “Born Alone” is like a forced and thinner version of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and it almost cheapens that arching electric lick at the end of the stadium-sized chorus and the “Day in the Life” devolution in closing. “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are like the same song, only one has strings and the other one doesn’t.
Endure this, and be rewarded. Album ender “On One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)” is the kind of song that keeps Wilco fans loyal, a 12-minute patchwork quilt of things that gives this enduring band integrity and stength: it’s got the typical Tweedian personality and lyrical mix of lucidity and ambiguity, several eternal verses, a lilting piano-led instrumental section and a nostalgia-inducing acoustic guitar that will have lighters raised in concert.
And perhaps that’s the takeaway for this eighth full-length album. As much as Wilco has been hot and cold even on their own material, they’ve been a consistently magnificent live act, and a handful of these songs will only enhance their setlist.