Sky Blue Sky is yet another strong collection of songs from the Chicago-based sextet Wilco. Well-produced and conceived with focus, the album is a remarkable follow-up to 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. That album, which was the follow-up to the massive Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, bore all the earmarks of co-producer Jim O’Rourke’s signature sound: dense layers of feedback crossed with studio-manufactured static. The upshot of the sessions was an adventurous record that sounded like Sonic Youth performing Who’s Next. However, on Sky Blue Sky, Jeff Tweedy’s seminal outfit benefits from a consistent lineup (Wilco had already suffered the loss of co-founder Jay Bennet, original drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach by time A Ghost Is Born was released) and a refreshing clarity to the songwriting. So much in fact, that the direct result is the coalescence of modern pop music and independent spirit.
Instead of experimenting with soundscapes and tape loops, Wilco offer enough rock and soul on Sky Blue Sky to make any Steely Dan fan proud, as on the bouncy, tongue-in-cheek “Walken,” or the lamenting “Hate It Here.” But elsewhere, the band evokes the spirit of From The Mars Hotel-era Grateful Dead, as on “Impossible Germany,” where guitarist Nels Cline solos extensively while drummer Glenn Kotche lays back in the cut with a steady but gentle percussive rattling. The album’s centerpiece, “Shake It Off,” unfolds with keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen nodding his head in appreciation of The Band before the track settles into a murky dose of swamp funk. Tweedy shines on the title track, returning to his Americana roots once again to deliver a tender vocal melody that is fixed in the tradition of Roy Acuff. Still, for all its classic references, Sky Blue Sky showcases plenty of innovation while remaining genuinely pleasing.
On previous efforts, Tweedy’s lyrics read more like a Faustian novel. This should not imply that he’s lost his bite on Sky Blue Sky, but if the album’s title is any indication, Tweedy appears to be approaching life with a newfound optimism. The glorious sing-along “What Light,” which is also the first single from the album, rings out with unabashed joy—a welcome contrast to the self-doubt and desperation of A Ghost Is Born. In essence, Sky Blue Sky is trademark Wilco. But rather than relying on avant-garde studio techniques, the album makes a pass at universal song structures, and the result is a lean and punchy effort, short on filler and solid from start to finish.