Review Summary: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is mysterious and chilling masterpiece that shows just how far love is from understandable.
Ever since I was a young boy, people have been telling me that life is one big journey, a test of character. We are told once we cross through the adversity of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and stumble upon the road less traveled that happiness and beauty will follow. Of course, like any test, there are those who succeed and those who fail. But what is success? What is failure? More importantly, what is happiness? These are questions that surface in the minds of tortured souls who will stop at nothing to fathom the purpose of living another day. Thus, it's often quite helpful to turn to music to mitigate personal angst and to connect on a visceral level with oneself. Still, music does not have all the answers. In fact, Wilco's landmark fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
, is the one posing these doubts as it weaves its own flustered web of trepidation, skepticism, and heartache.
However, it's much more than a painstaking rumination; it's also a complex and gripping musical endeavor from a band in the wake of evolution. Wilco's sound is more cohesive than ever and their meticulous execution shows immediately when the agitated ambience of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" comes out of the woodwork. With this album it becomes clear that Summerteeth
was indeed a transitional record. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco muster their most brooding tendencies and push their own boundaries beyond the typical degree of comfort, realizing a sophisticated sound without diluting their highly focused and potent songwriting that made them respectable up to this point. Tracks like "Kamera" and "Radio Cure" lyrically signify a sort of damage control, the postmortem of a past mistake, and, magnified by the band's inventive instrumentation and composition, carry more cogency than just the words themselves. The sound of Jeff Tweedy uttering "There is something wrong with me" above the garbled textures of "Radio Cure" paints an awfully bleak picture of stifled anguish. The entire album is suffused with an air of torment, dissatisfaction, and isolation.
Nevertheless, Wilco make this leap into singularity immensely stimulating. The layers upon layers of keyboards, percussion, electronics, can each take the spotlight with multiple listens, and the group experiments with everything from song structure to sonic arrangement. However, while the sound is often mysterious and distant, Wilco's performance is perpetually compelling. The heartfelt declaration "I'm the Man Who Loves You" gives rise to an inebriated guitar that shamelessly stumbles as Tweedy pours his heart all the way up until the passion runs rampant along with an outbreak of horns. Also, the woeful strings of "Jesus, Etc." are enough to induce goose bumps when Tweedy quietly sings, "You were right about the stars. Each one is a setting sun." Wilco impressively employ such an expansive sound through a variety of instruments and effects while never relinquishing the album's intrinsic humanity. Therefore, the band always maintains a small degree of transparency, like on the song "War on War", which opens with a sprawling effect of astral proportions before the band cleverly answers with a lucid and infectious rhythm.
As a result, Wilco has successfully made a record that both challenges and invites. Artistically unsullied, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
does not emit an immediate glow. Rather, it flickers from a distance, shyly inching its way toward clarity. And yet, despite the patience it demands, the inspiration it draws from is extraordinarily relatable. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett convey their disillusionment with a disintegrating culture, societal oppression, and the empty promises of the American dream. Perhaps more significantly, however, there is an overwhelming sense of personal crisis smothered across the LP - feelings of remorse, worthlessness, and the fear that death will interrupt potential fulfillment. "Ashes of American Flags" illustrates an aimless life without meaning as Tweedy solemnly sings, "All my lies are always wishes. I know I would die if I could come back new." Moreover, Wilco provide remarkable melodies to give their ideas both color and distinction. With not a weak track to be found on the album, the songs work together smoothly to construct a lush atmosphere that thrives on adventurous aural tangents that are oblique, yet stunning.
The forward momentum of "Heavy Metal Drummer" and the subdued domain of "Reservations" showcase Wilco's range, sauntering between sheer excitement and plodding introspection. This variety contributes to a delicate balance between the cold and the warmth of the album. In addition, the album's production plays a crucial role alongside the eclectic instrumentation. The billowing electronics and effects are nimbly inserted into these intriguing rock songs, creating a unique and mind-bending series of sounds that frequently take the reins and usher the tracks to unexpected places. For instance, "Poor Places" becomes more and more foggy as it approaches its conclusion until the reverberation of a looping vocal transmission is the only thing preventing the listener from being swallowed by complete oblivion. These strange barrages of disarray produce a dazed influence, but they ultimately serve to swaddle a package of exceptionally sensitive and dynamic tunes.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
remains a relevant record today both musically and conceptually. Infused with a desire to augment and deepen their songwriting, Wilco perfectly demonstrate an idiosyncratic shrewdness as well as an ability to turn negative emotions into provocative and incredibly beautiful musical pieces. For all the conflict surrounding this album - namely, the band being dropped from their initial label for an album that was perceived to be unsellable and outlandish as well as the tension between Tweedy and Bennett - the music speaks for itself and steadily endures. While it might be difficult to fully grasp love and happiness, this album shows that it's out there somewhere. You just have to reach for it.
War on War
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Ashes of American Flags