Wow, what's gotten into Wilco? When I last left off with this slightly deranged indie-hero band, they had just finished bewildering me with their 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, an album that I had a serious love/hate relationship with due to its lengthy white noise interludes, ambling and somewhat lackadaisical "jam sessions" that grew tiresome after a while, very quiet sections that forced me to adjust my volume knob, and the slightly-hoarse-but-they'll-grown-on-you vocals of one Jeff Tweedy. Even more so than the oft-celebrated "Album of Whatever Epochal Time Period that Isn't Even Over Yet" Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I was frustrated by Wilco's ability to come up with a melody or instrumental idea that intrigued me, and then sabotage it by completely washing it out with sonic experimentation or leaving me hanging on a long section without whatever rhythm I was just getting into. I've been writing reviews long enough to know that bands don't do stuff like this just to specifically annoy me, but it was tempting to think that Wilco knew all of the most infuriating ways to try my patience, and they enjoyed pushing those buttons as frequently as possible. I felt guilty for complaining at times about what was supposed to be groundbreaking art, but I just plain couldn't get into most of their stuff.
So imagine my surprise when, three years after A Ghost Is Born, Wilco goes and surprises me by ditching pretty much everything I didn't like about them. Along comes the much-anticipated Sky Blue Sky, and here I am expecting occasional segments of deliciously inspired music sandwiched in between maddening amounts of subversive lunacy, and instead, I get a fairly sunny soft-rock record that recalls a style popular on AM radio in the seventies. Suddenly, the order of the day is, "Just play your instruments and wear your heart on your sleeve and smile! 'Cause we almost forgot how much fun this whole band thing could be." Seriously, I'm not hearing so much as a hint of white noise on this album, and even its longest songs don't manage to overstay their welcome (save for one, perhaps, but at least it's an overly long piece of actual music played by actual instruments.) Don't be fooled - I don't think this band has sold out and made some sort of a bid at radio success or anything - they're still about as purposefully out of step with mainstream culture as they were on the last two albums, but this time around it shows itself in the form of nostalgia, rather than in the form of an aural headache. It's surprisingly straightforward, while still allowing room for the band's patented guitar freakouts and Jeff Tweedy's cryptic poetry and so forth. Those elements have just learned to coexist more peacefully with simple, unashamed love songs and the gentle, unhurried beauty of pianos, organs, acoustic guitars, and more organic instruments of that nature. Listen to how prominent the piano started to become on A Ghost Is Born - this progression didn't happen out of nowhere. Honestly, it just sounds like they've stopped second-guessing themselves so much.
Now if you were a Wilco fan during the YHF/Ghost era, you're probably going to come out of Sky Blue Sky feeling a lot like I felt when listening to the past two albums. You're going to be rather confused, if not a bit p!ssed off. Except that you'll feel more entitled to your frustration than I was, because you've been a fan of this band for a while, and you're not some ignorant moron like me who came into YHF totally cold and complained about the things I didn't get. I don't want to be smug about this odd circumstance of the shoe being on the other foot, but if some of you Wilco fans had to urge me to look deeper for the beauty in the things I dismissed as "pointless noise" or "drug-addled craziness" or whatever (I tried; sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn't), then I guess it's my turn to urge you to give Sky Blue Sky a deeper listen. Does a band have to be purposefully trying to confuse you in order to be making good art? Do they have to create sounds that are aurally distasteful to your average pop fan in order to maintain their "indie cred"? Can a band not just survive on playing their instruments well and crafting unique and memorable songs? (That's not to say that every song on Sky Blue Sky fits that description, but I think more of them do than what some fans have given them credit for.) Does it have to be so alienating that they're not trying to alienate you?
Now I'm not saying that Sky Blue Sky is perfect or that it's the best thing that Wilco will ever do - there are a few points where it gets a bit dull and tedious, and lacks a sense of adventure. But don't just assume that every song will be that way by their intros - many of these tracks start off deceptively simple, and organically mutate into some pretty solid, and occasionally intense, guitar solos (thanks to new member Nels Cline, though at times I can't distinguish what he's playing and what Tweedy is) or lively full-band breakdowns. For my money, it's the Wilco album that hits me closest to home out of the ones I've heard so far. If you're able to be yourself and still record something relatable and enjoyable to listen to without "selling out" (and the musical genre on this record is hardly popular with the kids these days), then I don't think it's fair to expect that you must push the known boundaries of what music can and can't do with every single album you record. Just let good music be good music. Give Sky Blue Sky a chance, and it will reveal its charms to you, with no strings of bitter irony attached.
Maybe you still love me, maybe you don't
Either you will, or you won't
Maybe you just need some time alone...
For most bands with a rock configuration, such a gentle song as this would seem like an off-kilter way to start an album, but judging from past doozies such as "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "At Least That's What You Said", this is a fairly normal and laidback start by comparison. (Not that weird starts are bad. I still love "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" a great deal.) But a simple, watery love song with undistorted electric guitars, pretty strings, and a touch of organ is likely not what you were expecting from Wilco. This is seriously about as straightforward as Jeff Tweedy has ever been, expressing serenity in the face of a number of "maybes" that could cause the woman he loves to choose to be with him, or to let him go. To be truthful, it sounds a bit rote until a delightful guitar solo cracks the sky open and pours in about a gallon of sunshine - it's the kind of "clean" electric guitar playing that I haven't been used to hearing as much in music released later than the 70's, and I have to say it totally works in the songs favor. When Tweedy repeats the line, "Maybe the sun will shine today" after the solo, where the song reaches its emotional high point, it's very easy to believe that there's no "maybe" about it.
You Are My Face
Filing into tight lines, ordinary beehives
The door screams, "I hate you
Hate you hanging round my blue jeans..."
At this point you're probably expecting some build in momentum after a relatively unassuming opening track... just wait for it. It may seem like they're in a holding pattern with the muted guitar intro, the lightly tapped drums, and lyrics that gently evoke poetic images of long, muggy summer days in someone's childhood. The musical mood is very "Muzzle of Bees" (my favorite track on A Ghost Is Born), and the lyrics are just about as cryptic, but then they start to become much clearer as the music gets muddier. It's an interesting trade-off - the electric guitar gets a bit more "buzz" to counterbalance the lead guitar solo, and Tweedy gets to the crux of the whole matter when he sings, "When everybody's feeling all alone, can't tell you who I am". And then we shift back for a gentle, floating outro with another cryptic verse, which does conclude with a poignant lyrical moment before the music lazily trails off: "Our voices lift so easily, a gift given accidentally, when we're not sure we're not alone." Pointing out the punchlines doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the more esoteric word pictures that take us down the path to get to those conclusions. I think it's one of the best lyrics I've heard from Wilco thus far, due to how the stuff we can relate to write away and the stuff that's harder to penetrate work together within one cohesive song.
This is what love is for, to be out of place
Gorgeous and alone, face to face...
Move over, "I'm the Man Who Loves You". I think I just discovered my new favorite Wilco song. This one immediately grabs at the part of me who wishes he'd been born before the 70's so that he could have appreciated more of the music released in that era (well, before disco took over anyway) with its opening "sensitive guy" guitar chords that are nervously picked out in a manner that's simultaneously once tense and beautiful. Jeff Tweedy comes out singing in code - "Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan" in his most casual tone of voice, as if he thinks it's the most everyday thing to open a song with, but it's the rest of the song, which is again more straightforward in the lyrics department, that helps to give these apparently far-fetched countries some context. It seems to be a song about travel as a means of avoiding interpersonal problems - something's not right between him and someone he loves, and either she's off gallivanting around the globe and ignoring him, or their separation is forced because he's in a band that tours a lot, or it's all just a metaphor and he simply feels that her mind is constantly wandering off to far-flung places and she's not listening to him. That's my best stab at understanding the meaning, but meaning really becomes a secondary component of this song once the vocals fall away halfway through and the band ingeniously builds from the song's light introduction into a gorgeous and generously lengthy guitar solo. At times Tweedys guitar is strumming nervous and quick chords while Clines plays a beautiful melodic line, and then the Tweedy seems to get the hint and joins in tandem, the two of them synchronized like birds flying in formation. This climaxes eventually, and then they replay the opening chords to take us out on a peaceful note. It's a breathtaking piece of music.
Sky Blue Sky
The drunks were ricocheting
The old buildings downtown empty so long ago
Windows broken and dreaming
So happy to leave what was a home...
I don't want to overuse the word "unassuming" in this review, because that implies that the band didn't really think all that hard about the composition of these songs, which isn't true. But there are a few tracks like this one which do seem to play it a bit too straight. This one shuffles along on light acoustic guitar chords as Tweedy goes over memories of a town that was once full of life and is now empty. Even though he has some bad memories that took place there, he realizes that he survived and learned something from the time spent, and is perhaps a bit sad that this place will never be the same. If the song was left to just the acoustic guitar and barely-there percussion, I'd probably be rather bored with it, but thankfully a darkly hued guitar solo (it's played low enough on the scale to almost pass as upright bass, but not quite) and the warm sound of a lap steel (thanks, Nels!) add some color to it. Still not one of my favorites, but it isn't completely nondescript, either.
Side with the Seeds
The treetops nod
The rain applauds
The park grows dark
And the swings all slowly die...
If you wanted a bit more swagger from Wilco, you'll get it here - the way that Tweedy's voice busts in immediately, swaying along in a half-drunken manner with the piano, seems to hint that this song has a tad more urgency to it. It's still going to lope along lazily for a few verses as he sings of an apparent battle between nature and civilization, in the form of weeds pushing up through oppressive asphalt - the city seems to be the oppressor, and he's saying that he prefers to "side with the seeds". I'm not sure if it's an environmental statement or another metaphor for relationship troubles (this later turns into a declaration that "I'll side with you if you side with me"), but as is true with many of these songs, any confusion about meaning ceases to matter when the guitar solo shows up. There are two such sections here, both subdividing the lazy tempo into furious triplets as a slightly unhinged-sounding guitar begins its metallic grumble. The soling reaches toward the stratosphere during the second section, bringing us to another great climax before a final crash of pianos and drums brings us careening back to Earth. I'd wager that this one'll be a highlight of their live shows.
Shake It Off
Sunlight angles on a wooden floor at dawn
A ceiling fan is on, chopping up my dreams
What is left of them? I take to sleep again
Where I dare pretend I'm more than I seem...
This one's probably the biggest head-scratcher on the album - it's the album's most aggressive and jarring track, and yet it's also its laziest and most drawn out. How are both possible? Well, we've seen that several of the songs on the album start off mellow and turn into something unexpected midway through, and "Shake It Off" is no exception - Jeff sounds like he's up to his old tricks as his somewhat hushed voice wanders its way through a verses that keeps trailing off in between each line of lyrics. The melody is almost predictable to the point of being irritating at times, but when the guitars get a bit grittier as the band stumbles inexorably toward the chorus, things start to get interesting - until they hit the actual chorus, which is repetitive and occasionally stumbles away from its own established rhythm several times. It's a bit psychedelic, I suppose, and I'll give the band credit for keeping up with each other despite all of the added pauses getting tacked on - turn it into an all-acoustic song and speed it up a bit, this sort of thing would probably be right up Nickel Creek's alley strangely enough. But after a while, the grind-and-halt starts to become predictable in its own way, and there's only so many repetitions of the song's title that we really need. You just want them to let loose instead of sounding so dry and restrained. It sounds like the band actually had a ton of fun playing this one, but that doesn't mean it's fun to listen to.
Please Be Patient with Me
I'm this apple, this happening stone
When I'm alone
Oh, but my blessings get so blurred
At the sound of your words...
An acoustic guitar does its gentle dance for what is probably the album's mellowest song (and there's quite a bit to compete with in that department!) It's a very pensive moment, one in which Tweedy pleads for a girl to just give him a little time to blossom into the man he's going to one day be. It's sensitively stated without being overly cryptic, and I appreciate that the band can write lyrics in this fashion even though I do also enjoy being confused by them at times. There's really not much to this one but the acoustic guitar being picked - the electric guitar joins in for an extremely subtle solo at one point (and drummer Glenn Kotche is apparently playing the glockenspiel?), but that's it. It sounds lovely, but doesn't totally stick in my head.
Hate It Here
I try to keep the house nice and neat
I make my bed, I change the sheets
I even learned how to use a washing machine
Keeping things clean doesn't change anything...
Wilco doesn't seem to do any out-and-out "funny" songs, but there's definitely a light touch of humor to this one, despite the fact that it's obviously a break-up song. The music feels a bit like they took "Shake It Off" and shook off all of the neurosis that weighed that one down - it's played rather straight, but the electric guitar gives just enough of a distorted grumble to let you know he's just a bit depressed. The reason for all of this moping around is because a lover has vacated the premises - she didn't just dumped him, she moved out and threw off the rhythm of their living arrangement. Now he has to do all of his own chores and actually learn his way around the kitchen and so forth - he actually does all of the busywork he can think off just to fill his time and get his mind off of her, but it doesn't work - he finds himself caving into the urge to call her (amusingly, he gets her mom on the phone instead). In its mundaneness, it actually mines a bit of humor from an incredibly un-humorous situation, which I think is its strength. The playful call-and-response between the electric guitar and the dual keyboards (Pat Sansone's Wurlitzer and Mikael Jorgensen's piano) during the song's bridge is cute, too. (Yeah, I called a Wilco song "cute". Get over it.)
Leave Me (Like You Find Me)
Can you believe it?
I'm somebody just like you
Content with being blue, honestly...
It's about here when I realize that this album's back half isn't as interesting as its front - and not because any of the songs are "bad", but rather because there's only so many of these "lightly tapped" ballads that make sense on a single album, and this might be one too many. (I appreciate the drummer for his restraint, but the guy needs a few more chances to open up. Wilco got a few new band members during all of the upheaval of the past few years, and in the defense of fans who don't like this album as much, I think they wanted a few more chances to hear how these guys "rocked out" together, which is a fair expectation even if I do enjoy the rather mellow album they came up with. Wow, that was a long aside. Anyway.) This one's mostly piano, light drums, and some sort of a "ghostly" guitar sound that I can't quite place - Pat Sansone is on harpsichord and Mellotron duty here, and those are weird sounds to be coming out of either instrument. Jeff's singing is almost reduced to a whisper here, and this is about the quietest "go away"-type song I've ever heard, assuming I'm correctly interpreting the phrase "You leave me like you found me" as a request instead of an observation. It works either way. But it's definitely more of a sobering comedown that explores the un-funny loneliness left by the live-in lover who vacated the premises in the previous song.
I was singing this song about you
I was thinking about singing this song about you...
Let's get one thing straight - you should not assume from the title that this song is about Christopher Walken. (Though it would be cool if they made a music video and asked him to dance in it.) Wilco just seems to like spelling things wrong on purpose from time to time. Like "Kamera" - a song from YHF which, ironically, I described as sounding like someone casually walking down the street. This song is about casually walking down the street, and it sounds like another one of those "half-drunk playing piano in a bar" type of songs like "Side with the Seeds" at first, but as you might have come to expect right now, more fun guitar solo goodness is on its way. That's a good thing, because the lyrics are simplistic to the point of being almost idiotic - basically he was walking and he started thinking about someone. That's it. But where they lose points for the lyrics, they quickly gain them back with - and I kid you not - a one-note guitar solo. That doesn't sound like a good thing, but it's actually a lot of fun due to how the band builds around it, turning order into a relative state of chaos by the time the song's over. Another review I read said that it was like listening to a musical fistfight or something. That's pretty accurate, except that it's important to note that it was really just a few guys sitting around, knocking back a few beers, and chatting about nothing, before that menacing guitar player walked in and started the whole fight by whacking some guy across the back of the head with the neck of his guitar. All hell doesn't just break loose out of nowhere, you know.
And if the whole world's singing your songs
And all your paintings have been hung
Just remember, what was yours is everyone's from now on...
This was one of the songs that Wilco chose to give fans a preview of before the album actually released (even though many of us were downloading it well before that), and to be honest, I'm not sure why. It's about as straightforward as folk/country songs get, with its guitar strum in 6/8 time, a bit more lap steel, some piano to brighten the mood, and a fairly pedestrian melody. I guess this is Wilco's attempt at bringing inspirational, since Tweedy's singing about being yourself and not letting anyone stop you from being an artist and all that - the lyrics strike me as genuine because I know he's been there, and he even makes an interesting observation about how your private thoughts become fodder for public speculation once you put them out there in the form of a song or a painting or whatever. But it's the chorus that kills it - it just repeats, "There's a light, what light?" again and again, replacing out the phrase "what light" with "white light" and "one light". It's the type of oh-so-subtle wordplay that you notice, but it's so slight that it seems like they were trying too hard to be clever and the meaning got lost in translation (kind of like a less inspired track on a Barenaked Ladies album, minus the pop culture references). This would be the album's low point, I suppose.
On and On and On
One day we'll disappear together in a dream
However short or long our lives are going to be
I will live in you, or you will live in me
Until we disappear together in a dream...
Thankfully, we come back up out of the doldrums for the album's final track, a lovely and disarming tribute to the endurance of true love, even in death. Yeah, it sounds corny when I state it that way, but I find myself really stricken by his unassuming admission that "We're designed to die", and how he signs it without fear, as if to ensure the person he has professed his love to that forever really means forever. (I think it was actually written for his parents after his mother died, but I could be wrong.) The piano and slightly murky guitar create a lovely, trance-like mood at the beginning of the song, and then, tying up the album with just as much breathtaking power as the very first guitar solo in "Either Way" gave us, we get another heavenly section where the electric guitar takes off. It's a final crescendo that just might bring a tear to your eye if you're the sensitive type. It's a great example of a "mellow" song that hits all the right emotional buttons without being outright manipulative, and that has a surprising amount of motion to it once it really gets going. Wilco does this "transcendent" style very well with little other than the basic instruments they've chosen to work with (OK, so the strings might be cheating, but only a little bit), and it really catches me off guard due to how they'd often sabotage sensitive moments like this by implying a bit of detached insanity in the past (see "Reservations" or the insufferable "Less than You Think"). Some things are just better played straight, you know?
Well, that's the album. It's just about the perfect soundtrack for those idyllic summer evening where you just want to pour a tall glass of lemonade and sit on your front porch and listen to the crickets chirping in the waning twilight. (OK, I live in an apartment in suburban Los Angeles... but I can pretend!) Just don't expect it to be the perfect soundtrack for your summer road trip... you'll likely fall asleep at the wheel. Context is everything here. Sky Blue Sky is mostly a delightful piece of work, and so long as you find Wilco delightful even when they're not trying to outwit your logical expectations of them, I think you'll come to discover its real value over time.
Either Way $1.50
You Are My Face $1.50
Impossible Germany $2
Sky Blue Sky $.50
Side with the Seeds $1.50
Shake It Off $.50
Please Be Patient with Me $1
Hate It Here $1
Leave Me (Like You Found Me) $.50
What Light $0
On and On and On $1.50
Jeff Tweedy: Lead vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Nels Cline: Electric guitar, lap steel, loops
Glenn Kotche: Drums, percussion, glockenspiel
John Stiratt: Bass, background vocals
Mikael Jorgensen: Piano, organ, Wurlitzer
Pat Sansone: Piano, organ, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, Chamberlin, Mellotron, Wurlitzer, harpsichord, background vocals