Wilco has never made a whole lot of sense to me, at least in a conceptual sense. I mean their music isn’t terribly hard to decipher, but I have never fully understood how Wilco seems to be perceived as one of those bands that seems to be snicker-free from the masses, that upper pantheon of contemporary acts that are so rigidly hip and consistently good. This has led to nobody really having the mental fortitude to realize that analyzing them under the same microscope we use for anything else in our life won’t bring about the rapture or savage cognitive dissonance; instead, there is scrutiny available and it’s actually not that hard to seize.

I know this, because I figured out an effective method to look at Wilco sans years of silly hyperbole that seemed to still hang around years after their seminal masterpiece 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', an album that has seemingly made Jeff Tweedy bulletproof.

I listened to the entire Wilco discography, from their debut 'A.M.', all the way to their most recent self-titled album. Oh, I also did this over the course of one afternoon/evening. I’m not sure if this is the only way to really cut through all the bullshit aura constantly surrounding Wilco, but I sure felt like I learned a lot about this group in the most objective way possible. So, without further adieu, I give you:

Fourteen things I learned about Wilco after listening to their entire discography in the span of nine hours:

i)Wilco songs are never catchy. People say they are, but this isn’t very accurate. I didn’t realize this through my run-throughs of 'A.M.' and 'Being There', but halfway through 'Summer Teeth' I realized I should have some tune, some harmony, some goddamn rhyme scheme repeating in my head by this point, since I had already been exposed to over thirty songs already. After completing the gauntlet, I have come to the conclusion Wilco has exactly four songs that have the possibility of being subconsciously hummed at a later moment in time: 'Wilco (the song)', 'Can’t Stand It', 'Hate it Here', and 'Rock Me Amadeus'. Ohhh, my fault, scratch that last one. That’s the Falco song I rewarded myself with following the Wilco marathon. I guess I’ve counted three catchy songs in their catalogue. Not to say that’s a bad thing. Just saying.

ii)I also noticed some real career-trajectory parallels between Spaceman 3 and Uncle Tupelo. Much like Spaceman, Uncle Tupelo was a dual-songwriter, semi-underground sensation that had a small but utterly adoring unit of fans that pushed both bands into much higher places than they rightfully should have gone. Then like nearly all dual-songwriter setups, things ended extremely bitterly as they forged separate paths that didn’t openly announce an official competition, but the only things missing from making it certified was an official midnight meeting between the divergent band members, the weapons of choice being RIAA record sale numbers, and aggregate metacritic ratings. And to be clear, Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized is to Tweedy’s Wilco, what Peter Kember’s E.A.R. is to Jay Farrar’s Son Volt, or to be more succinct, the victors and losers, respectively.

iii)'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' is very, very good, but it’s sort of the product of Jeff going through an adolescent Marxist phase. 'A.M.' was a wimpy, shitty effort and Tweedy knew this (made especially irritating by the fact the aforementioned Farrer put out the one and only good Son Volt album around this same time). 'Being There' was a good double album, but because of Tweedy’s less-than-impressive business negotiation skills with Reprise, Wilco ended up losing about $600,000 on the thing, and while 'Summerteeth' was certifiably awesome, that radio edit of 'Can’t Stand It' was very Un-Wilcoish, I mean would Thom Yorke ever agree to such an atrocity?

All this added up to a temper-tantrum of sorts, or as Wilco fans like to say, "a big middle finger to the industry in the form of tunelessness and songs about heavy metal drummers"(well, I’m betting a Wilco fan at some point alluded to 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' in approximately the same description). Either way, 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' still holds up as the band’s zenith offering, but it does come off as something Tweedy wrote because he missed his nap, when looked at in a historical context and in comparison to the sublime melodies provided on past efforts.

iv)Unless you hate the mellotron, 'Summerteeth' seems to be the most purely enjoyable album Wilco has made. From start to finish there isn’t a bum cut on this record and it also has the most organic feel to it. I can’t really say it’s the best, because it lacks the experimental bravado of 'YHF', and doesn’t really contain many of the staple songs of Wilco’s catalogue, but to me, it comes off as the purest extension of Tweedy’s inner chi or whatever you want to call it. I can’t be sure on this, but I think if he had to pick one of his records to be buried with, he would pick 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'....but he’d secretly wish it was 'Summerteeth'!

v)Tweedy is a big fan of Richard Lloyd’s guitar-playing and for his twenty-fourth birthday he actually got a guitar lesson from the elderly Television legend. Evidently, he wanted to incorporate that particular style into Wilco’s work (and by style, I mean long-winded guitar solos that go absolutely nowhere with the sole intention of stretching a perfectly good four minute song into an unbearable eleven minute one. Just listen to 'Marquee Moon' for a perfect example of this brilliant technique).

Anyways, save for the searing solo in 'Impossible Germany' found on'Sky Blue Sky', and the feedback freak-out 'Less Than You Think' which closes off 'A Ghost is Born', I didn’t really see Lloyd’s influence appear anywhere else in the catalogue. This is a good thing because a)While those two songs are definitely, probably, possibly unlikely, two of the coolest offerings Wilco has released, I can’t imagine piercing guitar work actually aiding any of Wilco’s material if Tweedy decided to make this a more prevalent element. Oh, and b)Because Television fucking sucked.

vi)Wilco is supposedly the “American Radiohead”, due to their stylistically diverse catalogue. I gotta say, I think that’s entirely accurate, because while I don’t think Radiohead is actually that diverse, after listening to the Wilco discography, I don’t think they are either. Radiohead has swung from extremes (delicate yet angsty slabs of post-grunge paranoia never big enough to warrant football-arena type gigs, and not anthemic enough hit the mainstream airwaves in the mid nineties, all the way to the computerized glitches of post-apocalyptic doom and gloom that has perpetuated their last four or five releases). It’s sort of the same thing with Wilco. They had their ‘safe period’ from 'A.M.' to 'Summerteeth', but once they swung over into bizarre America-on-acid world with 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', that’s sort of where they’ve stayed. If you want to talk diversity, it begins and ends with Ween, I mean that’s not even an opinion, that’s fact. Saying Ween is a little bit diverse is kind of like saying Serbia has done a little ethnic cleansing. But that’s neither here nor there.

vii)Wow, 'Sky Blue Sky' sucks.

viii)I must not be a real Wilco fan, because Wilco fans hate the noisefest 'Less Than You Think' and I think it’s one of the coolest songs they have recorded. Tweedy needed to put this song on an album, I think. Wilco was getting a bit too pretty and cutesy for their own good. After 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', they were winning all sorts of awards, appearing on magazine covers; hipsters everywhere were erecting bronze pagan statues of a naked Tweedy on their front lawns (using only recycled, biodegradable materials of course). Wilco had to put out one song to just fucking wash all the coolness away into goddamn oblivion. 'Less Than You Think' is that song, and that’s why I love it.

ix)Pretty quickly after finishing the Wilco marathon, I realized the most perfect assimilation of avant garde experimentation (as best evidenced on 'YHF') and Wilco’s version of flag waving folk-rock (as seen prominently on 'Summerteeth' and 'Being There') has to be 'A Ghost is Born'. If any of you out there reading this are new to Wilco, and want to know exactly what they are about and where their music is capable of going, I would definitely start with this album.

x)The sincerity level of 'A.M.'is almost unbearably embarrassing at times. A lot of it just feels awkward to listen to. Not awkward in the way you might feel if you were in Japan, and ran into your dad buying a woman’s old and used underwear at one of their many absolutely disgusting, perv vending machines that culture seems to adore, but instead in the eye-rolling, broken-hearted drunk guy at a party sense. You can’t help but listen and try to provide compassion of some kind, but really you can’t wait to go home and call this guy a stupid-ass shithead on his blog comment section.

It’s hard to fault Tweedy for this sort of song-writing and not sound like a completely, jaded Robert Pollard type, but honestly, if you don’t cringe during the majority of' A.M.', you’re probably in one of those "finish each other’s sentences" type relationships. You know, the kind where everyone assumes you’re brother and sister until they notice the gentle thigh stroking. And if you’re one of those people, everyone hating you is probably a bigger concern than not being able to laugh at the inordinate amount of ultra-lame moments found on Wilco’s first album.

xi)I think it’s tough to appreciate on the proper level right now, but I really believe that in time, Wilco’s newest self-titled effort will eventually be revered as a true highlight in their career arc. Tweedy has always been a very good songwriter in a fairly sophisticated sense, and by that I mean in many of Wilco’s best moments, it’s up to the listener to actively figure out what exactly makes the material so weirdly satisfying. This is easily achievable given any marginal amount of time and a less-than-vigilant attention to subtleties layered beneath some fairly standard pop arrangements. It’s this erudition that makes fans of Wilco see the group as such a dynamic tour de force in the industry. With 'Wilco' (the album), however, Tweedy has proven he can be a terrific songwriter in a more traditional sense of the term, ie a Cobain or McCartney.

I still can’t classify the vast majority of this record as overtly catchy, and there are enough moments on there similar to the kaleidoscopic mega-blast of 'Bull Black Nova' that hark back some of the really trying times found on the 'YHF'/'A Ghost is Born' era, but it can’t be understated how cool it is to finally hear a Wilco album that doesn’t seem to be vigorously pursuing an isolated concept, as was the case with nearly all past releases. This record breathes. Give it time folks. Once the colossal shadow Wilco constantly envelops over the Chicago rock scene begins to subside and we start to examine their music on an objective level, and not listening to them as Wilco records, I’m quite certain 'Wilco' will emerge as one of their true standouts.

xii)I also realized, if I were to see an Illinois tri-fecta concert featuring some of their finest prodigal musical children, Wilco, Jesus Lizard, and Cheap Trick, I’m pretty certain Wilco would not provide me with the highlights of the night. nything Tweedy and Co. would have on display would definitely place a distant third to David Yow leaping of whatever high-rise building seems to be near the stage, or a ten-minute Cheap Trick rendition of 'Gonna Raise Hell'.

xiii)I’ve read interviews with Jeff Tweedy. Admittedly, he is not the not most charismatic dude. I’ve seen Condoleezza Rice show more emotion. So it’s all the more impressive, he is still finding new and uncanny ways to give us revealing/heartfelt looks into this peculiar life he leads. It’s becoming more and more clear, that Tweedy probably needs Wilco more than we do.

xiv)Finally, I figured out that Wilco is more fun to talk about for extended periods of time, than to listen to for that same duration. Hence, the idea for this piece.

All in all, Wilco probably is a great band, but in the most ungreat way imaginable. Not a single soaring chorus to be found, the best guitar solo I was privy to was on their least guitar-friendly album and their most adored album was considered ‘un-releasable’ by their long time record company. Perhaps more than anything, this experiment taught me Wilco’s music is nearly unparalleled in the sense that every nuance and tune throughout their storied catalogue, seems to be an exact replication of Jeff Tweedy, both in a current and collective sense. Yes there isn’t a lot of stuff truly catchy or harmonically mesmerizing, but that really wouldn’t be proportionate now, would it? Not if you know Jeff, and after those nine hours, I feel like I do. Which is the best compliment I can give any musician.







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19328 Posted By: Richard (York)

Nice article, but you're totally wrong about Television.

19304 Posted By: Lisa (Chicago)

Hi Jeff,

Just keep in mind that you've only just begun. A real fan would spend the next nine hours listening to the entire collection backwards.

Cheers,

Lisa




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