Since the release of A Ghost Is Born in 2004, the group seems to have been slowly but surely alienating portions of its fanbase — those who admired the experimental free range of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot two years prior were disappointed in an ostensibly backwards-thinking artist treading familiar ground; and those who found 2007’s Sky Blue Sky to be dissatisfying in its quaint and “safe” approach will probably turn their noses up in a similar fashion at the band’s latest offering, which mainly expands upon their distinctive country-pop/rock sound (think Neil Young, George Harrison and The Eagles, for better or worse).
But for my money this record blends the experimental side of Wilco with the predictable in a more effective manner. This isn’t Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but it is Wilco, make no mistake about it. The title song may be a sardonically self-referential Warren Zevon re-hash, but the album quickly shifts into a rather freewheeling mood: “One Wing” sounds like a modest little ballad until you get to the schizo guitar freak-out; “Bull Black Nova” is, comparably, a jittery tune that escalates into a guitar assault by its closing, Tweedy’s despairing vocals straining: “I can’t come down / I can’t think / I keep calling / There’s blood in the trunk.” What? Doesn’t matter. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Alternately, I didn’t quite buy “You and I,” a syrupy duet with Feist. The lyrics and the melody: both marginal. It’s not offensively poor, mind, but isn’t that the core of the problem? I’d rather have a reaction than experience complacency. Is it “good”? Is it “bad”? I don’t know. It just…is.
“You Never Know” recoups with a bouncy keyboard riff, and “Country Disappeared” is one of the album’s better cuts; Tweedy is always at his best when producing deceptively simple and coaxing melodies coupled with devastating lyrics, and this track is no different: “When the cold night shakes you like a chandelier / The snowflakes break through the atmosphere / And melt on the blue breath of the auctioneers and disappear.”
But it was here, seven tracks into this album, that I began to feel a bit of déjà vu. It’s not that I had a particularly adverse reaction to the material; I just found myself struggling to retain interest (don’t you hate that?). Halfway through “Sunny Feeling,” a regrettably upbeat tune-without-a-tune, I was struck by its total lack of effort. I also imagined what a solid and focused EP this could have made in place of a sporadically brilliant, overlong LP.
Ultimately, for as agreeable as Wilco (The Album) may be, its flaws are frustrating. I’m not sure that it’s representative of the band at its best, and it’s never wise to self-title a record when you’re not firing on all cylinders (regardless of whether you’re just taking the piss).