Jeff Tweedy once quipped in a Spin interview, “I’m a dad and I like Merzbow… does that make Merzbow ‘dad-rock’?” As much a shrugging dismissal of a phrase that has followed his band since 2007’s sleepy Sky Blue Sky, the Wilco frontman’s remarks served to remind listeners that behind those Sunday afternoon earth-tone ballads stood a man who enjoys a little Japanese noise with his laid-back Americana. In the aftermath of 2004’s wildly diverse A Ghost Is Born, however, Wilco shelved any trace of that bold, experimental side, instead mellowing out to the max, or in the case of Wilco (The Album), pursuing a satisfyingly free and easy rock sound with a heaping spoonful of goof. But Wilco’s tone has changed considerably on eighth album The Whole Love, an album that’s neither Merzbow nor James Taylor, but easily their most compelling effort in nearly a decade.
Following the close of a four-album run with Nonesuch Records, The Whole Love is the inaugural release for Wilco’s own dBPM imprint, and it’s a damn impressive way to Christen the label. Tweedy, John Stirratt, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen retain much of the playful side they exhibited on Wilco (The Album), but they’ve amplified their ambition immensely. Where Wilco’s last two albums seemed unusually conservative, the band’s best albums have always been those like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, through which they’ve tweaked traditional Americana and power-pop sounds with darker imagery, denser and moodier atmosphere, and the right amount of studio mischief. The Whole Love is just such an album, pairing some of the band’s best songs in years with a broader color palette and a much brighter spark of inspiration.
Wilco doesn’t bother hesitating to push their weirdest and most progressive ideas up to the front, with lengthy space-rocker “Art of Almost” signaling the band’s new direction through Kotche’s sputtering, distorted and somewhat confusing beats. Before long, those beats begin to take a recognizable shape, and in comes a buzzing, psychedelic sonic journey that recalls Radiohead as much as A Ghost Is Born. For such a stark change of direction, however, it’s not that weird, and more importantly, it’s overflowing with energy and just flat-out rocks. I could have an entire album of this type of song and be completely satisfied, but it’s only a starting point from which The Whole Love takes on a variety of other exciting directions.
Each song on The Whole Love comes packed with layers of intriguing sonic detail, turning seemingly simple rock songs into unexpectedly huge productions. First single “I Might” is a Spoon-style rocker that layers on organ, glockenspiel and noisy guitar solos to pair with Tweedy’s misanthropic lyrics, his most eye-opening line being the chorus refrain, “If you don’t set the kids on fire/ I might.” The heady layers of keyboard in the gorgeous “Sunloathe” hearken back to songs like “She’s a Jar,” with Tweedy peppering its hypnotic sounds with melancholia like “I don’t want to lose this fight/ I don’t want to end this fight/ Goodbye.”
In spite of these darker, more psychedelic moments, Wilco hasn’t lost their fun-loving side either, best displayed on “Dawned on Me.” A perfect pop song among more stunningly skewed takes, the track climaxes with a chorus as catchy as it is feel-good: “I can’t help it if I fall/ in love with you again, I’m calling/ just to let you know/ It dawned on me.” And when the band eases into a quieter, subtler approach, the results yield the album’s most breathtaking moments. The haunting mixture of strings and lap steel on “Black Moon” creates an evocative, cinematic atmosphere, while 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” ends the album with delicately plucked acoustic guitars, subtle touches of piano and Tweedy’s soothing baritone.
The Whole Love is a much more inspired album than Wilco has released in some time, but more than that, it’s the band’s most exciting album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There’s energy and fire throughout the album, and an aim for something much bigger than merely an expertly played and well produced rock album. It’s all the evidence one needs that Wilco remains one of America’s greatest rock bands.
Stream: Wilco – “I Might”
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.