Review Summary: Wilco emerges from the ruins of Uncle Tupelo, while producing a country-tinged rock album.
Wilco is a band that first rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. As a result, Jeff Tweedy found himself in a transitional phase. Thus, on their first album, A.M., Wilco continues to grasp the alt-country sound that characterized Uncle Tupelo, while creating a record that is distinctly their own.
A.M. is not the most balanced record of its time, but the high points showcase the band's crafty songwriting and abundance of hooks. Some fans who prefer the more progressive, explorative sound of Wilco tend to write this album off as a country record. However, A.M. reads more as a rock album with a hint of the southern music scene. The use of banjos and twangy guitars are only a fraction of the LP's essence. Jeff Tweedy also manages to deliver some of his finest vocal performances along the way.
Even so, the album unfortunately sounds too generic at several points. Songs like "Casino Queen" sound somewhat like a Lynyrd Skynyrd pop song and lacks the flavor that Wilco is known for, while songs like "That's Not the Issue" fall flat after a minute of repetitive banjo instrumentation and guitar that sounds too controlled and restricted despite its apparent liveliness. Nevertheless, Wilco retains a high level of engagement with slow, lovesick ballads like "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" and "I Thought I Held You", as well as funky blues rockers like "Too Far Apart".
"I Must Be High", probably the most energetic song on the LP, leads off the album with dramatic lyrics about a disorderly breakup. With loud electric guitars and vigorous percussion, the track breaks down to the point of collapse, as Tweedy reflects on his own regrets. On "Pick Up the Change", Tweedy's vocals are both memorable and satisfying. The deeply emotional chorus also parades through a wall of ripe and steadfast guitars. Thus, many of the album's strengths rest in Tweedy's massive potential as a songwriter and a vocalist.
A.M. does not hit as hard as it could have, however. Wilco approaches each song the same way, exhibiting the same structure and instruments, which chip away at any forms of spontaneity. Wilco does not take any major risks on A.M., and the record sometimes comes across as too safe. This is not a major problem, especially for a debut album, yet some tracks do not get the breathing room they deserve. For example, the instrumentation in "Should've Been In Love" feels secondary to Tweedy's vocals since there are moments during which the guitars and drums could have escalated even further to push the limits of the song.
Winding down the album, the more laid-back "Passenger Side" is a smooth tune that features a light melody. The album ends on a high note with the crunchy "Too Far Apart", guided by groovy and fantastically rugged guitars. Wilco's bluesy side takes center stage as Tweedy drifts away with his candid lyrics. While A.M. is an enjoyable record for Wilco fans, it still retains many of the alt-country elements of Uncle Tupelo, which makes the album feel slightly hackneyed.
Nonetheless, A.M. provides a glimpse into a band blossoming with emotion and vibrancy. It will not be remembered as one of the band's finer albums, but it certainly holds its own. Taking this album at face value, it delivers a solid listen.
Pick Up the Change
Too Far Apart
I Must Be High
Shouldn't Be Ashamed
I Thought I Held You