Wilco is a band who has earned the right to record whatever kind of music they feel like. And if whatever they feel like happens to be subdued and minimal, so be it. Following last year’s sonically schizophrenic Star Wars, fans may have expected a continued evolution, but by now those very fans ought to know better. 2011’s The Whole Love took some risks, departing from the focused Wilco (The Album) from 2009. Would their newest, Schmilco, be awash of noise and experimentation, or would they recapture their definitive alt-country sound? Or perhaps something in between?
The needle of the scale falls closer to “classic” Wilco than to “nouveau” Wilco, but that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have its share of interesting moments. This time, however, the dissonance is intrinsic in the songwriting rather than the production, making for a more natural flow. Jeff Tweedy & Co. drive this point home immediately with the opening tune, “Normal American Kids.” The simple instrumentation and a traditional folky melody are refreshing for fans of vintage Wilco. However, the lyrics demonstrate that they are far from complacent in their situation (“always hated those normal American kids”).
The theme of confused youth continues on the next track “If I Ever Was a Child,” in which Tweedy sings, “I was never alone long enough to know if I ever was a child”. The small-band approach is employed here as well, and an oddly placed minor chord adds some currency and meaning to the otherwise straightforward tune. “Cry All Day” drives slightly harder with rollicking drums, whereas “Common Sense” provides the first legitimately unusual moment on Schmilco. It doesn’t last long, though, as the foot-stomping “Nope” brings the listener back to familiar ground.
“Someone to Lose” is delightfully Beatlesque, specifically late Beatles. In fact, it has more in common with Lennon’s solo work than anything the Fab Four may have done, as its bounciness is outmatched by its gentle honesty. “Quarters” mixes finger-picking acoustic guitar with offbeat hand percussion, resulting in a sound reminiscent of a fireside jam until it veers into a bit of a psychedelic direction.
In 2014, Jeff Tweedy released Sukierae, a kinda solo album under the moniker “Tweedy” with his son Spencer on drums. There, they delved into subjects of family and love, and perhaps his son’s influence continues on Schmilco (Spencer provides some percussion on the album; the rest is Glenn Kotche). Schmilco is similarly introspective, both musically and lyrically, a departure from the comparatively unrestrained Wilco we’ve seen in the past few records.