One of my first and most impactful dad-rock moments happened at the post office, patiently waiting my place in line as Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Lovin’ Fun” came on the radio. Christine McVie’s highlight from Rumours once seemed corny to me, but in that moment I was enjoying the hell out of it, almost to the point that I didn’t want to move to the front of the line. This event seemed to foreshadow to my first listen to Wilco‘s Sky Blue Sky, an album decidedly mellower and more breezy than any of the group’s prior output, and one that just felt right from that first spin. The band’s sixth album (not counting the Mermaid Avenue series) is steeped in classic, Laurel Canyon pop, orchestral and glistening with strings, Hammond and crisp, clean guitar serenades. From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s an easy album to like, as its laid back melodies are as soothing as they are masterfully crafted.
In context, Sky Blue Sky is a bit confounding, however. Following the broader, epic expanse of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the more progressive, psychedelic A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky is a drastic step away from Wilco’s prior forays into atmospheric eclecticism. Adding a layer of easy-going comfort-food McCartney-isms seemed the least likely course of action at this stage. Yet any Wilco fan should know by now that Jeff Tweedy and company never been ones for predictability or expectations. That they never seem interested in repeating themselves, likewise, is credit to their continued appeal.
Though understated, the songs on Sky Blue Sky are a graceful and lovable bunch, warmer and more comforting than the swelling climax of “Poor Places” or the extended drone “Less Than You Think,” if perhaps less immediately striking. “Either Way” and “You Are My Face” open the record with a double-dose of breezy roots rock balladry, the latter heating up courtesy of Nels Cline’s guitar soloing, a notable addition to the group’s sound that adds a bit more grit to these sunset-gazing tunes. Another of the band’s new members, Pat Sansone, could have also played a big part in the group’s shift (though to what degree is hard to say), as Sky Blue Sky does carry a similar kind of earthen Americana as Sansone’s other band, The Autumn Defense.
“Impossible Germany” provides the most obvious bridge back to A Ghost Is Born, its minor key melody and surreal lyrics of “Impossible Germany/ Unlikely Japan” veer slightly away from the humbler, domestic concerns of the album. The title track quiets down to a subdued acoustic sound, albeit a haunting and beautiful one, making it a standout among the various other chilled selections. “Side With the Seeds” begins a bit like The Beatles’ “Oh, Darlin” and ends with a climax remarkably similar to that of Pavement’s “Stop Breathin’.” When the group thickens their approach, as on the catchy, rich-sounding “Hate it Here,” they sound their most magnificent, and Tweedy’s lonely delivery only makes the sadness that much more sweet: “what am I gonna do when I run out of shirts to fold?/ what am I gonna do when there’s no more lawn to mow?/ what am I gonna do if you never come home/ tell me what am I gonna do?“
The honky-tonk flavored “Walken” is silly but infinitely enjoyable, bouncing along on a saloon piano lead. And the soulful “What Light” reads like a mission statement from Tweedy: “If you feel like singing a song/ And you want other people to sing along/ Just sing what you feel/ Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.” Wilco are singing the songs they want to, even if that means taking a detour from the most logical path forward. As the band settles into more familiar shades of brown, sepia, gray and charcoal, they seem to reveal so many extra tints and hues in between.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.