The moment I realized that I was officially an adult (see also: grown up, old), I was at the post office, patiently waiting my place in line as Fleetwood Mac’s “You Make Lovin’ Fun” came on the radio. I had long resisted the beckon of Nicks, Buckingham, McVie and Fleetwood, and didn’t even bother voting for Rumours on Treble’s Best of the ’70s feature. But here I was, bopping along to a song I once considered “cheesy,” enjoying it to the point that I almost didn’t want to move to the front of the line, as I would become distracted from my bit of ’70s Gold joy. Alas, the line moved, I was able to beat the postage hike, and I missed out on the last minute of McVie’s fun-lovin’ ode.
This particular event I illustrate came as a foreshadowing to my first listen to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, an album decidedly mellower and more breezy than any of the band’s prior albums. Though my first instinct to the AM (not A.M.) pop sound was that of ambivalence and aloofness, nearly giving in to my restless teenage instincts, I soon acknowledged that my teenage years were behind me, and that Sky Blue Sky, is awful purty. 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 simultaneously dissonant and tuneful A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky is a drastic step away from Wilco’s prior forays into atmospheric style juggling. Taking their music into a realm of organic, country-influenced sounds that appeared in rowdier form early on in the band’s career is hardly what anyone could have expected the group would have done this late in the game. Any Wilco fan should know by now that Jeff Tweedy has never been one for predictability or expectations. And he should also be thanked for never having handed fans a re-hash of existing albums.
Though understated, the songs on Sky Blue Sky are a graceful and lovable bunch, warmer and more comforting than “Poor Places” or “Less Than You Think,” if less immediately striking or artsy. “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 bear a strong resemblance to Sansone’s other band, The Autumn Defense. This is merely speculation, however.
“Impossible Germany” sounds the most like something from A Ghost Is Born, its minor key melody and surreal lyrics of “Impossible Germany/ Unlikely Japan” veer slightly away from the organic, rootsy flow. 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” (nothing to do with Christopher) 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, regardless of expectations. Some may find difficulty with this stage of Wilco’s evolution, but not me. I’ve come to embrace their palette of olive, cream, beige and sepia, even if it means I’m enjoying something more “grown-up.” If they start sounding like Steely Dan, though, that’s a deal breaker.
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.