Wilco’s pursuit of ‘Whole Love’

Wilco may define this generation’s postmodern, creative zeitgeist better than any other rock band.

The group's musical roots are firmly planted in country music (front man Jeff Tweedy was one of the founders of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo), which is then filtered through relentlessly progressive and deconstructive tendencies. And it's all executed by one of the most talented and disciplined ensembles working today.

On "The Whole Love," their self-produced, self-funded, self-released new album, this Chicago-based band sounds like the voice of a generation of bemused and dented Xers  - even if their status as such is not to be fully appreciated for another generation or two.

Though "The Whole Love" is Wilco’s eighth studio release, it is only the third with the current lineup: guitarist Nels Cline; multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen; drummer Glenn Kotche; and original member, bassist  John Stirratt. The uniquely cohesive chemistry of a band this individually proficient is practically historic. From lush ambiance to frenetic abandon, the group’s primary role is, of course, to serve as a backdrop for the often frail vocals and abstract lyrics of Tweedy. With a voice that is much more Bob Dylan or Neil Young than anything that will be heard on "The X-Factor" and a knack for phrases that can sound as bizarre as anything from Sgt. Pepper or as plaintive and plainspoken as a Tom T. Hall tune, Tweedy sets the bar high for modern impressionist songwriters. Things are never as random, or simple, as they may seem.

Musically, "The Whole Love" builds its nest somewhere to the right of the band’s most chaotic and experimental work and to the left of "Sky Blue Sky" and "Wilco (The Album)." Maybe the increased adventurism is a function of their time together as a unit. Maybe the approachability is due to the physical and emotional health of Tweedy - now well past a nasty prescription drug dependency. Maybe this is just what happens when musical geniuses manage to keep working together for this long without imploding.

Whatever it is, "The Whole Love" feels stimulating, inspiring and deeply satisfying. It transcends the constructs of the Americana genre with all due respect and injects some much needed melody and meaning into alternative rock. The perfectly captured melange of acoustic instruments, electric guitars, analog and digital synthesizers, drums and percussion, strings, pedal steel and stacked vocal harmonies makes a powerful argument for both the value of high-fidelity recording and the lingering legitimacy of the LP format. For some an EP of MP3s may have been enough, but this music fan is glad to have this collection on vinyl coming through a good set of speakers.

Tweedy is in rare form lyrically. His is a consistent meditation on the need for - and personal commitment to - lasting love that runs far deeper than mere sentiment. Even his ruminations on faith and his own lack of religiousness feel more like a rejection of hypocrisy than the middle finger so many rockers and cynics seem to feel the need to throw at God. When Tweedy talks about the God he doesn’t believe in, it is with sadness, not vitriol, and often sounds like a God I don’t believe in either. His thoughtful and brutally self-aware articulation of his frustration with his own nature, his need for the love of others and his fractured commitment to be there for the recipients of his love is moving. His seems to be a heart facing in the right direction. Here’s hoping he finds that heart’s true home, if he hasn’t already, before his journey ends.

“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.

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This was my introduction to Wilco so I wasn’t going to comment but since there seems to be silence so far…

I read the poetry from this Album and only this album “Whole Love” and listened to a couple of songs posted to youtube. - Loving It!

I can’t say I entirely follow the justification that Tweedy doesn’t believe in God. The album poetics follow a classic journey starting with “Art of Almost” where he expresses an almost naive belief in “true love” and having all the time in the world. “Tomorrow I’ll have all the love I could ever ache…” It moves through various interpretations, heartaches and growths in love. “Born Alone” almost belongs in Caryn’s blog post below and is certainly a spiritual awakening but I see it, as you say, as a cry against hypocrisy rather than the Deity. The penultimate song brings us to the Title Track that takes on the Homeric metaphor of the captain lashed to the mast so he can hear the sirens. By that point in the journey the album has grown in awareness to overcome the innocence of its beginning track. All pride is washed away and all that is left is humble hope that the singer will know when the time is right to show his “Whole Love”. 

The last song “One Sunday Morning” (For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) has the added tag which gives it the feeling of an epilogue and has been confirmed by Jane Smiley as resulting from a discussion with her partner. While it sums up a poignant human journey that on a spiritual level, it mirrors the journey toward a deep understanding of the complexity of love taken by the the rest of the songs, I would be wary to assign the spiritual views of the last song to the songwriter’s personal life. 

I think it is important to note the writer chose “It’s your God I don’t believe in” not “I don’t believe in God”. The son in the song has a problem with his father’s religion. Losing your faith in Religion is not always the same as losing your faith in God. (As they say… Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt!) I think that is part of the point of the song along with the regret that the religious differences came between the son and the father.

Thanks, Guest. Good points. I wanted to really dig more into Sunday Morning and others, but had a word count limit ;) Hard to fit all thoughts on a project this thick in 600 words!

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