Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s 2007 album, turned out to be a significant turning point for the band. Out went the experimentation and angst that had made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born so exciting, and in came a pastoral rootsy feel and a more relaxed outlook. It also marked the first album by a line-up that would prove to be the most stable in Wilco’s 16 year (and counting) career.
At first this was a disappointment, but as that album’s many strengths became apparent it became a firm favourite. Conversely Wilco (The Album) in 2009 initially impressed me with the variety of sounds on show, but has been the Wilco album I have listened to least since their debut record A.M. The Whole Love is probably closest in style to Wilco (The Album), but it does everything just that little bit better and is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year so far.
Bookending the album are two of the best songs in the Wilco catalogue, each reflecting the different sides of Jeff Tweedy’s musical palette. ‘Art of Almost’ is in the vein of ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ or ‘Bull Black Nova’ with the steady rhythms and a motorik groove building to a dissonant coda. At over seven minutes it is some way shorter than the closing track ‘One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend’ which is all calm and beautifully subtle guitars that seems to fly by despite being more than 12 minutes in length.
Between these two long tracks sit ten songs that seem to span the whole Wilco career, not just the classic rock sounds of Sky Blue Sky or the experimentation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but also the fuzzy pop of Summerteeth and some of the genre hopping confidence of Being There (the album that originally demonstrated what a force to be reckoned with the band are).
Nels Kline is a great guitarist and all three guitar players put in sterling work throughout. In general Nels Kline keeps his guitar antics at bay on this album, and when he does let rip the results are more interesting than before, the squeaky discord of the solo on ‘Dawned On Me’ being a case in point.
That doesn’t mean that the band have totally forgotten how to rock. ‘Standing O’ is one of my favourite tracks on the album and makes me wish that the band would up the pace and volume more often. You just know that this song is going to be a highlight of the bands’ excellent live show.
That said, the softer more acoustic songs are a joy as well, the aforementioned ‘One Sunday Morning…’ and ‘Rising Red Lung’ being as pretty and well played as anything you’ll hear all year. “Sumptuous”, I think, is the word to use here.
It isn’t just the guitar work that deserves a mention, all the band play a considerable part in the songs. The rhythm section of Glenn Kotche and john Stirratt (the only original member other than Tweedy) are steady, tight and inventive throughout ogften offering more of a groove than people might expect. Refreshingly the bands keyboard players get a stronger roll this time around which gives the album more depth and also plays to the more pop orientated tendencies on ‘I Might’ and ‘Dawned On Me’.
The quality is very high throughout, with only the faux music hall of ‘Capital City’ not quite working (Tweedy has done this kind of thing much better before), and even that example is by no means a bad song. It would be churlish to complain about any minor missteps on an album this good, by a band that is playing with confidence, inventiveness and real skill. You get the pop Wilco, the rock Wilco, the experimental Wilco and the soft melodic Wilco, all of which adds up to one of the most satisfying releases of the year so far.
Physical CD purchasers (yes we still exist…just) can pick up a special edition of the album that features a colour booklet and a second CD featuring four bonus tracks.
By Dorian Rogers