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.