Review Summary: Tweedy returns to his Americana roots and Wilco mature as a band. No, there's no noise, but its still a wonderful record.
As the New York Times
review of this album asked, “where did all the strange noises go?” This has been a question that’s been on the tips of every critic and Wilco fan’s tongue as Sky Blue Sky
was recorded, and now released. Having spent several years as the champion of alt. Country, Jeff Tweedy began a change in style with ‘99’s Summerteeth
that rapidly turned into a right turn on ‘02’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, a sprawling, flawless, art rock record that made joyful use of feedback and noise. ‘04’s A Ghost is Born
followed a similar format, with even lengthier pieces and extended guitar freakouts. But now, gone are Tweedy’s days of cryptic lyrics and jarring noise. Gone, too, are several bandmates and his addiction to prescription painkillers. It was probably these changes that prompted Tweedy to take a meandering trip back to his Americana roots and write, with some significant help from his excellent new lineup, some simple, down to earth music.
Much has been made of Wilco’s new lineup, Tweedy, drummer Glen Kotche, and bassist John Stirrat (the only other members besides Tweedy to have been with the group for longer than two albums) have all made a multitude of statements concerning how this is the final and definitive Wilco lineup. Joining the three, as well as pianist Mikeal Jorgenson, are keyboardist/guitarist Pat Sansone, and acclaimed free jazz guitarist Nels Cline. Cline’s presence in the group seems like it should make them even nosier (he is, after all, a man who re-imagined John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space
as an even noisier piece of music) and, for a while, he did, as documented on their magnificent live album Kicking Television
Here, however, he manages to find a perfect balance between technical brilliance and laid back groove. And Sansone’s keyboards lock perfectly with Jorgenson’s and as does his guitar with Tweedy and Cline.
As for the actual songs, they are, for the most part, breezy and surprisingly content. Even when he’s curtailing domestic strife on “Hate It Here”, Tweedy does so with warmth and humor as the band build up to a stomping chorus. Similarly, the jaunty piano rocker “Walken” helps prove that the band finally have some surefire live staples. Elsewhere, the record is breezy, as on the cup-is-half-full opener “Either Way”, the beautiful title track, or the folksy “Please Be Patient With Me”. Most importantly, the band manage to hold off cliché’s and stay original. Ever wonder what Television would sound like mixed with Steely Dan? Look no further than the heady guitar jam “Impossible Germany” wherein Tweedy and Sansone mix nimble harmonies with a monstrous solo from Cline. The stunning closer “On and On and On” also donates that this is 2007, and Wilco have plenty of fresh ideas.
Much has been made of the fact that this record sounds like six men sitting in a circle playing music together, and honestly there’s no more apt description for it. Most of the songs on here aren’t anything groundbreaking, but Wilco’s considerable talent manifests in subtler ways: a particularly plaintive vocal melody, the duel keyboard work that complements many of the albums songs, or just about any of Cline’s leads. And there’s no denying that this kind of music perfectly fits Tweedy’s off key, world-weary voice. Sure I miss the cryptic lyrics and atonal noise, but if Wilco decide to spend the rest of their career writing records like this one, I won’t mind.