Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Safe At Home: Are WIlco Even Trying At This Point?

Is Wilco the greatest American band of the modern age?

Yes and no.

On the "Yes" side, I think Summerteeth is an absolute work of genius, even with the mild tinkering that the label forced upon an otherwise note-perfect record. Maybe someday, Tweedy will have distanced himself enough from those tumultuous sessions to release a deluxe version with his original vision for the album restored.

In the "No" column, I have no idea what versions of the band's first two albums the critics heard because the ones that I have are half-baked slabs of proto-Americana at best. That's not to say that the albums suck by any stretch but it almost felt as if the Pazz and Jop crowd were determined to proclaim such platters ALBUM OF THE YEAR before they'd even heard a note of music.

And when a major label is pulling the strings, you can almost bet that some level of payola was involved.

On Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, however, the universal praise of world-respected rock critics did not go nearly far enough.

From an outsider's perspective, what made those records so damned undeniable was the amount of dysfunction and turmoil that fueled them. On one hand, you almost wonder how they managed to get anything done, much less something that managed to breathe new life into an genre of music that doesn't exactly embrace risk-taking.

When I listen to those two records, I can still feel the despair, the uncertainty, and the love/hate relationship between Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett. In any other case, spending untold hours obsessing over every last note, such as was done on those efforts, is a recipe for absolute disaster, but the tension, the mood swings, and the sudden rush of chemicals entering the bloodstream is palpable.

If Tweedy had shit-canned Bennett when he probably first decided that he wanted to, chances are there would have been no Summerteeth, no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and no "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart".

What made those records not only great, but essential was the fact that you could take that many mismatched pieces and put them together in such a way that was more beautiful than perfection.

See, Wilco was not yet a gaggle of well-paid yes men whose side hustles included water faucet commercials and halfhearted defenses of autumn.

Even so, you could hear Tweedy outgrowing them one by one and in their place came players with impeccable pedigrees and the ability to play exactly what Tweedy wanted when he wanted it, which is exactly what every songwriter thinks they want...until they get it.

As I listen to Ode To Joy for the tenth time, hoping to find the handle, what seems to be preventing this listener from doing so is the absence of anyone willing to throw Tweedy a curve that he didn't see, or hear, coming.

In that sense, listening to this record is a lot like watching a seasoned pro in the batting cage sending one ball after the other sailing up and over the fence. It might be thrilling the first couple of times, but, after awhile, one gets the feeling that even the batter is starting to get tired of the predictability of it all.

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