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Wilco - Sky Blue Sky Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    5
sound:    6
released:    2007
label:    Nonesuch
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageAn act of audacity that still resounds to this day, Radiohead’s Kid A is an album that sounds more prescient with every passing trend. Controversial at the time and still contentious to this day, the disc was a shot across the bow of rockers everywhere, the most legitimate assault on the primacy of the guitar in rock music since the invention of the synthesizer. Polarizing and puzzling fans of their previous release, the guitar-heavy OK Computer, the band’s willingness to shift their focus to the electronic and ambient music that had been bubbling through the underground of European pop music was a true revolutionary statement, the kind of a gamble that said, like it or not, they were going to make the music they wanted. And, more than anything they’ve done, it was the moment that confirmed their status as the world’s greatest rock band, a true watershed moment that proved they had the creative range and innovative edge to join the ranks of the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd. The point is clear. Mediocre bands make the same album over and over; great bands reinvent themselves.

Across the Atlantic, by virtue of their steady evolution and ability to avoid breaking up, Wilco is that band. Though they haven’t had quite the right combination of commercial success and creative ambition to give them an undisputed claim on Best American Band status, from the roots rock opus of 1996’s Being There to the classic rock revisionism of 2004’s A Ghost is Born, no American act has done more to broaden what constitutes popular music than Jeff Tweedy and his constantly shifting lineup. Largely, they’ve done that through a process of continually and astutely reinventing themselves, bravely wandering away from their leading role in the alternative country movement to explore new wave pop and experimental rock. But how many times can a band reinvent itself? Don’t even the most inventive musicians simply run out of ideas, eventually?
Unfortunately, from the sound of Sky Blue Sky, the answer for Wilco is an unequivocal yes. Where their foundational classic rock template has served as the starting point for nearly everything they’ve done, this is the first time they haven’t had much to add to it. To that extent, it’s their least innovative and least interesting release since their 1995 bar-rock debut A.M., and anyone hoping that the band would push further into the experimentation of their previous three releases will be sorely disappointed. In short, it’s the sound of a great band shrugging and admitting that they’re now going to explore the nuances of what we already knew they could do.

Arguably the most talented lineup Wilco has ever taken into the studio, with prodigiously gifted avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone having joined since 2004, it’s all the more puzzling that the band sounds so tame and bored. Gone are any traces of the synthesizers and drum machines of their critically-lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the guitar freak-outs of A Ghost is Born are limited to a precious few eruptions. For certain, they are remarkably adept at twisting the rustic charm of the Band around Dylan-esque confessionals, but we’ve come to expect more from them than simple homage. Worse yet, this band doesn’t sound like they’re having much fun, either.

Much of that is probably by design, as Tweedy spends much of the album ruminating over personal shortcomings and an imminently crumbling relationship. “Maybe the sun will shine today/the clouds will blow away/maybe I won’t be so afraid,” he sings unconvincingly on homespun album opener “Either Way,” and it sets the tone for an album where he never quite reaches a comfortable resolution of those feelings. As such, many of the songs take place in drab settings – sitting on couches, laying in bed, mowing the lawn – with Tweedy left to his thoughts, alone and sullen.

Musically, the band sounds tentative and confused, relying on stock riffs instead of putting their distinct fingerprint on the album’s 12 low-key arrangements. Track after track gets bogged down in the mid-tempo blahs, from the drably proggy two-guitar attack of “Possibly Germany” to the darkly slurring stomp comprised of spongy electric piano and mewing guitars in “Shake It Off,” a listless misfire that never quite takes shape. Far better are the soulful piano flourishes and heartfelt vocals of “Side With the Seeds” and the jangly folk-rock guitars and malted harmonies of “You Are My Face,” a track that explodes in flurry of drum rolls and crackling guitar leads. Still, such moments are relatively rare, and the album keeps you waiting for the musical climax that never arrives.

That’s not to say that the album doesn’t exude a certain understated charm, as Tweedy has rarely sounded as broken and apologetic as he does on the stripped-down balladry of “Please Be Patient with Me,” with finger-picked acoustic guitars and subtle layers of atmosphere fitting the song’s fragile sentiment. Even better is “Hate It Here,” a track built around a minor chord piano hook, sprightly electric piano fills and jagged guitar lines that lead to a bridge that sounds as if it was lifted straight from “Let It Be.” With Ringo-styled drum rolls and multi-tracked harmonies repeating the song’s titular refrain, it’s arguably the album’s only transcendent moment.

By the end, Tweedy tries to turn a corner but trips over a trio of songs whose forced optimism becomes more cynical than anything on the album’s first half. “The more I think about it/the more I know it’s true …/honey, I think you’re just right,” he sings over the jaunty piano figure of “Walken,” an otherwise silly romp with giddy slide guitar and Southern-fried twin lead guitars. The genuinely affecting “What Light” follows, presenting Tweedy at his most nakedly vulnerable, offering an awkward anthem for self-reliance and personal resolve that is almost too sentimental for the song’s humble acoustic guitar strum and gorgeous pedal steel flourishes. “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,” he sings to himself, leading up to the album’s most memorable chorus. By the album closing “On and On and On” those good feelings have largely dissipated, however, giving way to Tweedy’s frightfully desperate pleas and promises. “Please don’t cry/we’ll just have to die/don’t deny what’s inside,” he sings ominously, adding a tragic edge to his unsteady reassurances to himself that everything will work out.

All in all, given the rich lyrical content and emotional depth, it’s a shame that Tweedy and his bandmates couldn’t come up with a more interesting set of arrangements for his penetrating character study. For sure, the album isn’t without its exceptional moments, but the high points here would be filler on their best releases, and the band sounds more like they’re rehearsing their chops in the studio than sitting down to the business of making another rock epic. For a rough draft or a collection of outtakes, that would be suitable enough, but for America’s greatest rock band, it’s nothing short of a resounding failure.

Given the sincerity of their classic rock homage, the production is suitably warm and dry, with the vocals high in the mix and the instruments presented with little separation. Sounding very live in the studio and with relatively few obvious overdubs, the production matches the small room feel of the album, as well suited for reverb-drenched electric pianos as it is for carefully finger-picked acoustic guitars. If you listen closely you can almost convince yourself that you hear the sound of vinyl spinning.

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