Why I Love Wilco

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to address for many months. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve felt I can’t possibly articulate how much I love the music produced by Wilco. But I’ll try.

I discovered the Chicago-based band about a year ago, when I attended, within the span of a month, 1) a screening of the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” about the recording of their latest album, and 2) a live Wilco performance at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club. Several of my friends, notably Chris D., Chris H., and Miles B., had been praising the band for years, but I’d never listened to any of their albums.

After seeing the excellent film and then seeing the band live (they play a mixture of, and I know this is gonna sound ridiculous but there’s no way around it, alt-country/pop/folk/rock), I purchased just about all of their albums and have since come under their spell.

Why? Because their songs are both complex and catchy. Wilco’s music is multi-layered and well-conceived and well-played–but it always contains elements of pop. Wilco’s musicians value instrumentation, but you can always tap your toes to their tunes. If their albums were books, they’d be the novels of Don Delillo or Richard Ford: artful, intricate, and really smart, but accessible.

Wilco was formed when the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994. Jeff Tweedy, one of the singer/songwriters, formed Wilco, and Jay Farrar, the other, founded Son Volt. While Son Volt continued Uncle Tupelo’s tradition of alt-country–steel guitars and lots of twang–Tweedy and his bandmates have, with each successive album, embraced stylistic evolution.

Wilco’s first album was 1995’s A.M., which was straight-ahead rock/pop/country. Then, in 1996, came “Being There,” a resounding critical success: the double album featured, among others, gems like the heartrending “What’s the World Got in Store” and the driving, up-tempo “I Got You (At The End of the Century).”

Next, the band collaborated with Billy Brag to record 15 previously-unreleased Woody Guthrie songs; the result was 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, followed by Volume II, which came out in 2000.

In 1999, sandwiched between the Mermaid Avenue albums, Wilco released “Summer Teeth,” which was at once rife with bubble-gum pop electronic melodies and biting, dark lyrics (such as “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me”).

And then, in 2002, the story of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” emerged. It was, besides being Wilco’s best effort to date, a metaphor for the modern music industry: the band’s label, AOL Time Warner’s Reprise, heard the finished version of the album and said it needed to be changed–it wouldn’t sell. Wilco refused, was allowed to buy the album back, and, after a bidding war, sold it to another AOLTW subsidiary, Nonesuch.

Wilco, like so many other bands, wanted their artistic freedom; Reprise, like so many other labels, wanted a return on their investment–they thought the album would flop. They were wrong. And their short-sighted misjudgement caused them to lose (only to see their parent company re-buy) one of the best albums of 2002.

Brent Sirota, at the time of the album’s release, said it best:

So does Yankee Hotel Foxtrot justify the controversy, delay and buzz? Everyone, I think, already knows that the answer is yes; all I can offer is “me too” and reiterate. And after half a year living with a bootleg copy, the music remains revelatory. Complex and dangerously catchy, lyrically sophisticated and provocative, noisy and somehow serene, Wilco’s aging new album is simply a masterpiece; it is equally magnificent in headphones, cars and parties. And as anyone who’s seen the mixed-bag crowd at Wilco shows knows, it will find a home in the collections of hippies, frat boys, acid-eating prep schoolers, and the record store apparatchiks of the indiocracy. No one is too good for this album; it is better than all of us.

Beneath the great story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there are all the tropes and symbols and coincidences of a little mythology; but under that is a fantastic rock record…

Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Wilco. My impression, though I haven’t met anyone who feels this way, is that some people think the band’s self-consciously hip–that they try awfully hard to be cool. As someone wrote on Metafilter when the buzz surrounding “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” reached fever pitch,

Wilco — and I’ve tried, honestly I have — have always struck me as like a moody blurred charcoal drawing, and if such things appeal to you, then bravo. As it is, I appreciate the occassional concrete detail, I like to be compelled to dance or something rather than be moodied on, I don’t like the marriage of songcraft with mopiness, and I don’t get such apparently-obvious concepts as what, say, the phrase “summer teeth” is supposed to evoke. Or, for that matter, “I assassin down the avenue.”

Okay, that was a rant. Wilco’s all right. But they do cause overreactions among people who think that blakck-and-white film and uncapitalized titles are Very Arty Indeed.

But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who agree with that sentiment.

Looking ahead, Wilco has recorded a new album; it should be released this spring.

I can’t wait.

Published by Newley

Hi. I'm Newley Purnell. I cover technology and business for The Wall Street Journal, based in New Delhi. I use this site to share my stories and often blog about the books I read, tech trends, sports, travel, and our dog Ginger. Join the growing group of readers who get my weekly email newsletter.

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  1. I found Wilco about . . . ok a few weeks ago . .again, meaning I’ve heard their music but didn’t realize Jeff’s brillance until now. . . I want to see them so bad. Located in Cleveland