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Wilco reinvents themselves again on “The Whole Love”

Chris Collum | Monday, October 3, 2011

“The Whole Love” has the sound of a band tearing up the carpet and starting fresh — for the third time in their career.


Wilco first did this in 2002, with the critically adored “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which moved the band away from their alternative-country roots toward an exciting and entirely new sound, full of confusion and tension, and drenched with atmosphere. It happened again in 2007 with “Sky Blue Sky,” which saw the band regroup and start again with a new lineup. That album also marked front man Jeff Tweedy’s return from rehab.


“Sky Blue Sky” and the eponymous seventh album that followed are perhaps best described as remarkable due to how unremarkable they are. Both albums feature comfortable, mellow pop-folk — certainly nothing as challenging as “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” or that album’s follow-up, the darkly experimental “A Ghost Is Born,” written in the throes of Tweedy’s painkiller addiction. That sort of mellow pop-folk is certainly something Wilco does very, very well, but after seeing what the band is capable of, it is a little disappointing.


From the first moments of “The Whole Love,” it is obvious that the amorphous, experimental side of Wilco has returned. The album opens with a throbbing bass line, shuffling drums, plinking keys and a soaring 10 seconds of a mini-string symphony, before Tweedy sings, “No I froze, I can’t be so… / I can’t be so far away from my wasteland / I’ll never know when I might ambulance / Or hoist their hearts with my own hands / Almost…”


These lyrics are a good of example of the way Tweedy writes. He tends to use vague fragments of different images and feelings to try to convey a larger idea. On “The Whole Love,” Tweedy explores every aspect of love in the lyrics: frustration (first single “I Might,”) longing (“Open Mind,”) shame (“Standing O”) and adoration (“Dawned on Me.”)


The album is bookended by a seven-minute song (“Art of Almost”) and a 12-minute epic (“One Sunday Morning,”) both of which are easily the best songs on the album. Wilco has played around with long-form jams with great successes in the past, so long-time fans should know to expect something good from those tracks simply because of the length, even if they don’t know what exactly to expect.


As previously mentioned, opener “Art of Almost” showcases the experimental side of Wilco that has been missing since 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born.” The best part of “Art of Almost” begins about four and-a-half minutes into the song, when a driving bass line, paired with veteran drummer Glenn Kotche’s snare taps sets the tone for a slow-burning Nels Cline guitar solo with about a minute left in the song.


It’s great to see Wilco using Cline to his full potential. He first joined the band for “Sky Blue Sky,” and gave the record some of its best moments, but unfortunately didn’t play a very noticeable role on “Wilco (The Album).”


The final track “One Sunday Morning” is centered around a soothing acoustic guitar riff that carries throughout all 12 minutes as Tweedy croons about death and other things morose and dark. Despite the subject matter, the song has a very relaxed feel to it musically, not much different from many tracks on “Sky Blue Sky.” It is perhaps the least challenging tracks musically on “The Whole Love,” but it is also one of the best.


Elsewhere, Wilco sometimes goes for hushed acoustic ballads (“Rising Red Lung,” “Black Moon,”) occasionally for perfect pop songs (“Dawned on Me,” “Capitol City,”) intermittently from mellow to crushing in an instant (“Born Alone”) and at other times for just crushing (“Standing O”).


It seems almost inevitable that many will feel the need to draw comparisons to later Beatles records, and while in some cases the shoe fits, this record really just sounds a lot more like Wilco being Wilco.


While “The Whole Love” certainly sounds like classic Wilco, it does not really sound similar to any particular previous Wilco album — or rather, perhaps it sounds like all previous Wilco albums. This record is certainly one of the finest of their career, and it is clear this band still has an exciting future ahead of them. Wilco has not settled into a rut, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.


Though Wilco certainly has “torn up the carpet” and started over on this album, maybe the most fair statement would be that “The Whole Love” is the sound of a band that is performing at the top of their game, and producing some of the most brilliant music they have ever made.


Wilco – “The Whole Love”
September 27, 2011
dBpm Records
3.5/4 shamrocks
Key Tracks: “Art of Almost,” “One Sunday Morning,” “I Might” and “Open Mind”