Critical Writings

Articles and Reviews: MUSIC

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco (Nonesuch)


It looks like Wilco, a collective band name which is becoming ever more synonymous with the collaborative choices of he who is in effect their mainman, Jeff Tweedy, have come out the other side of experimentalism, to produce a relatively straightforward – if uncharacteristically less challenging – record than committed fans have come to hope for in recent years. Granted, Wilco albums have always frustrated audience expectations to some extent, but with immediate studio predecessors Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, it seemed like that was because they were going forward to break new ground, while with Sky Blue Sky, in contrast, first impressions indicate that it is because they are consolidating by marking time, or even going backward into a retro early ’70s pastiche. Which is good news for those who like the mellow, soulful side of the band, but less appealing for those whose interest was sparked by the jagged-edged, angular, ventures into feedback and distortion they’d been producing lately.

 

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This clearly has something to do with the new ensemble line-up. Gone is Jay Bennett, the creative foil with whom Tweedy experienced considerable creative tension, which in retrospect may be seen as ultimately fruitful (just as he was prone to the same kind of productive antagonism with another Jay – Farrar – in the dying days of his seminal first band, Uncle Tupelo, back in the mid-’90s). Conspicuous by his absence too is Sonic Youth all-rounder Jim O’Rourke, who obviously contributed greatly to steering Tweedy and his band into terra incognita. Tellingly, Born Again In The USA, the last album by the Tweedy/O’Rourke/Glenn Kotche side project, Loose Fur, was more urgent, riveting and enjoyable than this mediocre platter.

Instead, we have the personnel who played on last year’s transitional Kicking Television live set, which drafted in studio sessioners Pat Sansone and Nels Cline, who, while they can undoubtedly play, and, perhaps more importantly, do what Tweedy tells them to, are chiefly responsible for the muso workout feel of this collection.

However, it is a Wilco album, so it can’t be a complete turkey. Just check out the country soul of ‘Hate It Here’ for evidence of Tweedy’s abiding way with a song.

While it is destructive to buy into the romantic myth of the tortured artist, which demands he take chances and go to the dark side, what’s lacking here is the sense of risk which made the previous two albums so innovative. Artists are entitled to be joyous, but this latest work comes across as acceptingly bland. Tweedy may have just wanted to make a record that sounded nice, but in many ways, it’s just too nice.


First published in Magill, July-August 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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