Wilco have covered a wide range of stylistic ground through the last decade. But since going fully independent in 2011 with The Whole Love (released, like all others since, on their dBpm Records imprint), the seminal Chicago band have also been left to their own devices, tinkering at their home-base studio The Loft without outside interference. The upside here is that Wilco’s recent few releases have felt looser, deservedly so. The downside: the last few Wilco albums also feel like they’re caught in a closed loop—a little too sleepy, a little bit recursive. The impulses that the band once led with to get deliberately weird and wild have been gradually dipping since 2016’s Schmilco. To be clear: Wilco haven’t made a bad or truly boring record in their career so far. The craft behind 2019’s Ode to Joy, as well as last year’s Cruel Country, the second double album of cosmic Americana in their canon, remains impressive. The band’s long-game and creative independence are enviable. But how do you continue to really shake things up?
This is the intention that animates Cousin, Wilco’s frank, artful and weird 13th album. The record’s ten tracks have some precedent in the middle decade of the band, back when the current lineup had just begun being seeded with all-stars like Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen. You can hear some of the hallmarks of that time here: the collective openness of Sky Blue Sky in the playing, the twitchy self-awareness of A Ghost is Born in Tweedy’s writing. But Cousin also feels like a true refresh for Wilco, bringing sounds and ideas to the fore in new and idiosyncratic ways.
Wilco’s twin impulses here—to whittle, but also to experiment—couldn’t have found a better enabler than Cate Le Bon, the Welsh art pop singer-songwriter who produced Cousin. Le Bon’s work, especially last year’s Pompeii, is both imaginative and unsentimental. Her tact seems to have galvanized the band to clean things up, try things out: they’re still filling in the scenes, but more pointedly. Lead single “Evicted” is a tightly-wound pop bounce, with wily guitar fills, a surprisingly limber bass and a naggingly chipper shuffle groove. It’s a prickly but satisfying rub against Tweedy’s heartbroken lyrics, the band prodding him out of his moping. Le Bon’s sharp approach also elevates “A Bowl and a Pudding,” a mid-album highlight that unspools in long lines. The song feels like it could have easily lost itself in dense instrumentation, a thicket of too-easily-accessible keyboards and guitars. But Le Bon hacks away that potential clutter: the band sounds graceful and aerodynamic, gliding on an arc above Tweedy’s tense scenes (“Not saying anything/Says enough/I know what you’re thinking/when you walk away”). Like most of Cousin, the track is lean, but not lacking.
Tweedy is on a similar kick as lyricist, paring back his words to an essential core. Long ago he began the band’s magnum opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with a rush of bitter “I am” descriptors, collaged for effect. On Cousin’s penultimate ballad “Soldier Child,” all he needs is just one blunt image to capture the same kind of intense alienation and resolve, of what it’s like to really work at a rocky relationship. “I fought like a child/Soldier/Fights to forget/What it’s like/To be/Home,” Tweedy sings, his voice hauntingly glazed-over, letting the last word drip on a minor chord. “Ten Dead” is similarly spare and unsettling, a loaded commentary on selfishness in American culture, boiled down to an austere nursery-rhyme: “I woke up this morning/then I went back to bed/Ten dead/Ten dead/Now there are ten dead.” It’s deliberately crude, but also sounds somehow alluring.
Cousin’s experiments hit even more effectively when the band gets a bit bigger. Opener “Infinite Surprise” has a heartbeat pulse that crackles things to life, gushing forward in a collective swell until it’s marred by a full, curious minute of scratching and pulsating horn waves. The record closes on a similarly limitless note with “Meant to Be,” the band rumbling, almost galloping, off into the distance. And the title song offers Cousin’s best rock ’n’ roll release, a woozier and more-charged “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” It’s the wildest energy on the record, and the fullest manifestation of the band’s collaboration with Le Bon. There was a time when experimenting in Wilco also meant being miserable, pained, overwhelmed: twisting guitar bends in desperation, Tweedy channeling his migraines into writhing clouds of noise, sitting with worry about so many things. It’s a far healthier Wilco that we hear on Cousin. Even if the record doesn’t quite reach the dark depths of their past releases, the band now at least have the perspective and clear minds to transform their heavy stuff into something subtler, more colorful.
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Ben Easton is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He's a member/producer of the rock quartet The Academy Blues Project, with whom he has made six records, and plays Live Piano Karaoke in-residence at Sid Gold's Request Room, New York City's flagship modern piano bar. Beyond Treble, Easton is a staff writer at Cover Me Songs, the web publication devoted to cover music of all genres.