Review Summary: Worth the hype.
When I first heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, I felt like I'd just discovered my new favourite band. It wasn't an instant favourite, but sometimes you can just tell when an album is going to grow on you like nobody's business, and this did - and the excitement and discovering the album's secrets were matched by my excitement at hearing what else this band has done. Does the fact that they've since turned out to basically be a one-album wonder make this more or less special? I'm not sure. But long after the initial glow has worn off, I can still turn to this album and acknowledge and enjoy some of the most perfect music I own.
'Perfect' is a key word, particularly when it comes to the album highlight. "Jesus, Etc." is just that, and right now, I can't think of a single other song I could say that about. It's unique in the way that it's both entirely laid-back and off-the-cuff, and yet it sounds like every single second has been meticulously engineered to generated the same emotional effect - and that's before we get to how indescribably pretty it is. And those lyrics? It's as if Tweedy had learned from Blood on the Tracks
on a poetic level. Like Bob Dylan on that similarly maudlin and moving album, he knows that the only way to achieve earthy sincerity and earth-shattering profundity is to exchange banality with the oblique. 'Don't cry, you can rely on me', 'I'll be around', and 'you can come round anytime you like' sit next to images of tall buildings shaking and a sky filled with a thousands sunsets, all topped off by the final cigarette of the evening. It's my two favourite love songs rolled into one, because it's a song about longing for love but also about protection, about somebody being the vital force that shields you from the outside world. Combine the two and it's a song that knows and feels love but longs for eternity; a song about that restless feeling that can only come from a true love that won't end. Other people might capture the individual sides of the coin better - Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over" and Dylan's "You're A Big Girl Now" jump to mind for the former at least, while Massive Attack's "Protection" addresses the latter more directly - but I've never heard a song that hits both so squarely and fearlessly.
What's just as remarkable is that they very nearly pull off the trick twice - "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is only the second best song here but it'd unquestionably be the best on 99% of the other albums in the world. Here the name of the game is confusion, as the songs ploughs through all the stages of a self-destructive, emotionally abusive relationship (from 'what was I thinking when I let go of you?' to 'what was I thinking when I let you back in?' to, ultimately, 'what was I thinking when I said hello?') It's one of those songs that can only ever return to itself, without resolution - and so it does. Again, it's the conflict between the twin emotional forces - self-hating soul-searching against blind devotion - that makes it so special.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
could consist of just those two songs and it'd probably still be a classic. Truth is, it took me about 5 listens to even pay attention to any other song. But these other tracks aren't makeweights - the sprightly "Kamera", the maudlin "Radio Cure", the resigned "Ashes of American Flags", and the ecstatic pairing of "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I'm the Man Who Lovess You" are all as good as the highpoints of Wilco's other albums, and when you consider that this includes songs as good as "On and On and On" and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)", that's no idle boast.
I don't hold stock with the idea that 9/11 influenced the writing or recording of this album in any direct way, but I think it's important to acknowledge the fact that a lot of people think that, and understand why. The simple answer is that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
sounds like a statement; it simply doesn't register on a gut level that something as simultaneously epic and homespun as this doesn't have some huge link to real world events. It's just one of those albums. For me, though, it's enough that these are some of the first songs I'd turn to if I were choosing the soundtrack of my own existence.