WILCO, WILCO (THE ALBUM), 2009
Happy new year! What an appropriate track to come up at the end of the year, since Wilco (The Album) was my favorite album of 2009. I'm glad to have the chance to respond to the critical backlash that has begun on this band, whom I believe to be the best American band of the decade.
I read all the "end of the year best of" lists like I'm sure many of you did, and Wilco is basically nowhere to be found. Even in places where the album was originally reviewed positively, it's been replaced by lesser but hipper choices. We've apparently all decided that Wilco is suddenly dad-rock, boring and old-fashioned, and critics, including older ones who should know better (I'm looking at you Greg Kot! You wrote the biography of this band, raved about the album on Sound Opinions, interviewed Tweedy AGAIN, and then left them off your list in exchange for bands who sent you demo tapes? Come on, man! Act your age! P.S.-- love your work), are trying to out-Pitchfork (www.pitchforkmedia.com for those of you wondering what I mean) one another by embracing newer bands who, simply, aren't that good yet. There's nothing worse than 50 year-old critics trying to pretend like they totally love bands that they know are pale imitations of something that's come before, but are trying to make the combover work and still hang out in the club and hit on younger girls.
I probably listened to 300 records released this year, including every record that made every top 10 list you can send me. And this Wilco record is better than all of them.
Now. I am indeed a dad. I am also 40. That apparently now means that I should go crawl in my hole with my precious copies of Hootie and the Blowfish and the Santana record that everyone bought and Buena Vista Social Club and Norah Jones' first record and the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and get out of the way while music history is re-written by noble, riotous youth. To hell with that-- I hated those records, too. Moreover, there were plenty of newer bands whose records I enjoyed this year (especially Kasabian's-- that's good stuff) but those records were not as good as this one. I don't love Wilco because they're boring; I love them because they're challenging and brilliant. Nothing has changed in two years when they were "the American Radiohead." How many times did you read that in 2007? Now, 24 months later, they apparently suck, and critics who were fans a year ago are mockingly dismissive: Go away, you old farts! There's 247 new bands from Williamsburg who need a gig!
Williamsburg: The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns...
Why is the new Wilco record better, you ask? Let me count the ways:
1) Other records were not as well-crafted. The songs on this album are thoughtfully constructed (as we'll see in a minute).
2) Other records were not as well-played. The musicianship in this band is at the highest level. I saw Wilco this summer, and it was a bold, daring 2 1/2 hour tour de force of rock music. I've never seen a band play better as an ensemble than that night.
3) Other records were not as well mixed. This record sounds great, with a broad, deep mix with high highs and low lows. It's panoramic in places.
4) Other records were not as diverse. Too many modern albums take one sound, tone, key or rhythm and ram it home for sixty minutes. The Wilco album is an album, meant to be played in sequence, with songs informing one another. The whole is greater than the parts.
"Deeper Down" is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. If "Deeper Down" had come out, exactly as it is, on a record by kids under 25 who no one had heard of, critics would be asphixiating under the weight of their own superlatives. You want complicated? You want challenging? You want the opposite of feel-good dad rock? Then listen to this track again, out of that context.
First of all, the music is both really complicated and instantly hummable. There are two repeated chord patterns: the first one, for the vocals, starts on Dm and resolves down to C in an eight chord walkdown. It's a really clever way to move from Dm to C. The solos are in Am, the relative minor to C, and those progressions are more complicated, moving from Am eventually back to Dm to return to the verses in a ten chord progression. Moreover, the fourth verse adds a coda to the progression, setting up the second solo.
Both solos are also filled with brilliant playing and clever arrangement touches. In the first solo, a haunting guitar is the dominant sound, but in the second solo, the band breaks out, with a mellotron keyboard going back and forth with a staccato, plucked guitar arpeggio. I apologize for all music lingo, but it's complicated music, so I need these terms to give it justice. There's more thought into the arrangement of "Deeper Down" than there is in the whole careers of some artists.
Most impressively, the band performs the track without a click track, so the beat floats and slows down at the end of each verse. That kind of playing requires a brilliant band-- all of those starts and stops without any mechanization is serious business. I saw the band pull off this song live, perfectly, and it was proof for me how much they've gelled as a band-- I don't know of too many bands who can play like this.
Finally, I love the lyric, which is evocative without being too obscure-- it's a song about finding meaning outside of traditional consciousness, either in a state of exhuastion or beyond where we usually go to find understanding. I love the line "I adore the meaninglessness of the "this" we can express." Not a bad summation of Tweedy's approach to his music for the last several albums, actually.
Why have we decided to grow tired of great bands so quickly these days? Is it really the iTunes, downloading-frenzy culture that makes it so we can't pay attention to a band for more than thirty minutes? That would explain why third-rate bands are getting so much attention in the blogosphere. Everyone wants a new flavor right away. Remember when you'd buy an album and listen to it a dozen times before you decided whether you liked it or not? Things had a chance to sink in, to grow, to challenge you. You'll forgive me if I don't join the parade of critics lining up to embrace whatever one-trick pony Pitchfork and its ilk have anointed this week. I'm saving my praise for the emperors that actually have clothes, thank you.
You watch-- critics will take a sledgehammer to Wilco's next album in 2011. They'll be wrong then, just as they're wrong now. Go enjoy this record. It's not boring, old, or tired. It's just good. Really, really good. While that's not enough for this generation of ADD-addled critics, that's their loss, not ours.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm heading out to dance to Lady Gaga.