I can’t lie-there’s something about Wilco (The Album) that really rubs me the wrong way right from the get-go. In all likelihood, I probably would have overlooked the fact that the first track on the Chicago sextet’s seventh release is called “Wilco (The Song),” if the lyrics to the chorus weren’t actually “Wilco… Wilco… Wilco will love you.” No, that’s not a joke. Your eyes did not deceive you. That’s really the chorus -officially propelling Wilco into the “what the fuck?” realm with this doozie of an opening track. Prior to its release, the PR pitch for Wilco (The Album) was that the band had “kept it simple” this time around. But after a few spins, one could project that “kept it simple” could really be misconstrued as “ran out of ideas.”
Now, to be fair, Wilco coming up dry at the well of inspiration was practically inevitable. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will go down in the record books as a slice of pure genius, and the two releases that followed-A Ghost Is Born and Sky, Blue, Sky-were no slouches, either. One can even argue that Wilco has continuously over-achieved since 1997’s Being There. But with Wilco (The Album), I get the mental image of Jeff Tweedy and company standing around the water cooler, scratching their heads, wondering just what the hell to do next.
It’s not as if Wilco (The Album) doesn’t try to engage the listener-you can say what you like about them, but Wilco are earnest. But just how shall I put this so that it actually means something to somebody? Well, have you ever had a glass of flat soda? That’s kind of what listening to Wilco (The Album) is like. Could it quench your thirst? Possibly. Will it leave you thirsty for something else? Without question.
Part of the problem is that throughout most of the album, the tempo is seemingly on life support. It takes five songs just to hear something you can tap your toe to-the best example being the first single, “You Never Know” (which sounds an awful lot like Tom Petty’s “Jammin’ Me”). I’m not suggesting that Wilco return to their Stonesy, “Outta Mind, Outta Site” days. Not at all. Yet drummer Glenn Kotche seems practically lost on Wilco (The Album), almost bored. It’s as if he’s saying to Tweedy through his playing, “C’mon, man, give me something back here!” This is red flag number one-especially considering that Kotche is a vibrant musician and has been the key factor to Wilco ever since Tweedy decided (rightfully so) that the band needed to break the shackles of the alt-country tag.
But perhaps even worse than Kotche’s malaise, guitarist Nels Cline is drastically under-utilized to the album’s severe detriment. Part of what made Sky, Blue, Sky so rich and lavish was Cline’s meaty, jazzy lead work- all of which is virtually absent.
A lot of what is featured on Wilco (The Album) isn’t bad songwriting, but it’s rather bland when compared to Wilco’s body of work. On many of the tracks, you can cite a similar idea worked out on a previous Wilco album that yielded much better results. “Deeper Down” isn’t a bad song, per se, but “Hell Is Chrome” from A Ghost Is Born is way more interesting. In fact, not many of the 11 songs on the album leave much of an imprint at all-with the exception of “Bull Black Nova,” where bassist John Stirratt loops under the verses through the horror-show shrill of squawking guitar and keys, while Tweedy sings about a man who just murdered his girlfriend.
A tad morbid, perhaps? Sure. But is it interesting? You betcha-and it’s worth noting, because ultimately, Wilco (The Album)’sdownfall is that it fails to present enough solid ideas to keep the listener continuously interested for 45 minutes.