When Wilco debuted their simply, but quite amusingly, titled and new song “Wilco (the Song),” instantly catchier than anything on their last two albums, on `The Colbert Report’ last year, it appeared that they were in a more playful mood. That playfulness seemed all the more apparent when the group revealed that their new album was, in fact, titled Wilco (The Album). And when its cover art, depicting a camel wearing a party hat in front of a birthday cake, was revealed, one had to wonder whether Wilco had abandoned the idea of taking themselves seriously at all for this album. If that were the case, the band could certainly be forgiven; in fact, such a course of action just might them some praise after the jarring stylistic shifts of A Ghost Is Born and the over-easy delicateness of Sky Blue Sky. But as the former’s “The Late Greats” and the latter’s “Walken” displayed, Wilco sometimes sounds their best when they’re just having some fun.
To some extent, that’s what Wilco (The Album) is—Wilco having fun. But that’s not entirely what it is, and for that reason this isn’t their McCartney II, not that I’d have a problem with that. In essence, Wilco (The Album) is exactly what its title says. It’s not the group’s best album, nor most ambitious, nor most dramatic. Rather, it’s a sort of cross section of the band’s strengths and personalities. It’s a summary of sorts, showing off their power pop side in “Wilco (The Song)”, their delicate balladry in “Solitaire,” and their odd, psychedelic freakout side in “Bull Black Nova.” And you know what? It’s pretty damn good.
Hearing the scruffy chords of leadoff track “Wilco (The Song)” is refreshing after their sleepy 2007 set. It’s an easy song to like; it’s hard not to be charmed when Jeff Tweedy reassures the listener, “Wilco will love you baby” over its infectious, distorted hook. The song, while unique, sets the tone with its loose feel and head-nodding smirk. The band sounds tight and professional, but far from rigid. The songs on Wilco (The Album) breathe freely, and as neatly placed and tightly played as each note may be, the group gives off a natural vibe, which is exactly how a band with a 15-year history should sound (though the current lineup has existed for significantly fewer years).
“Deeper Down” and “One Wing,” as well, are prime examples of this air of effortless synergy. The former is hushed and breezy, with its melody punctuated by theremin, while the latter is one of the album’s strongest tracks, a breakup song that builds to a dense and stunning climax, its noisy guitar spirals clashing with an irresistible melody. Those looking for evidence that the feedback and Krautrock inspired-sounds of A Ghost Is Born haven’t quite shaken can look to the escalating intensity of “Bull Black Nova,” a homicidal narrative (“there’s blood in the trunk“) that stands as one of the weirdest tracks here, but still pretty accessible, all things considered. On “You and I,” Tweedy duets with Leslie Feist, though it sounds more like one of her songs than theirs. It’s pretty enough, but not all that memorable. Thankfully “You Never Know” picks up some speed, ushering in a George Harrison-like pop track that’s as gorgeous as it is grin-worthy. And on “Sonny Feeling,” Wilco even comes close to replicating that carefree feeling of the rocking title track.
On Wilco (The Album), Wilco certainly sound like they’re having a good time, just not one that stands in the way of good songwriting. Seven albums into their career (or nine if you count the Mermaid Avenue series), they’ve matured into seasoned musicians, comfortable with their sound but unafraid of a few surprises when the mood strikes. Their past jaunts into uncharted waters may certainly have yielded the most thrilling material, but when they’re a bit more relaxed and eager to put out a relatively straightforward rock album, Wilco is an absolute delight.
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.